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Luther Reviews

The Guardian, London
8, 2001

SECTION: Guardian Leader Pages, Pg. 16

HEADLINE: Welcome return for Osborne's revolutionary

BYLINE: Michael Billington

Theatre Luther Olivier Theatre, London

It is staggering to think that John Osborne's Luther has had to wait 40 years for a major revival. Even with its obvious faults, the play invites comparison with Brecht and Shaw, and offers a perfect vehicle for Osborne's scalding rhetoric; and at the Olivier it gets a matchingly fine production by Peter Gill, and a revelatory performance from Rufus Sewell.

In retrospect, Martin Luther seems the perfect hero for a dramatist who, in his autobiography, refers to the nag of disquiet' with which he was born; throughout, Osborne finds in Luther an echo of his own stubborn defiance of authority. First, Luther defies his miner father by becoming an Augustinian monk. Then he defies his chosen order by embracing its disciplines with subversive enthusiasm. Finally, he defies the Catholic hierarchy by his rejection of Papal indulgences and by his belief that the just shall live by faith alone' rather than by their works.

It seems right that a famously protesting dramatist - who in 1961 was arrested for civil disobedience - should write about the architect of Protestantism. But Osborne also intelligently seizes on Luther's anal imagery as the clue to the rebel-reformer. In the great sermon Luther preaches at Wittenberg in 1517, the struggle with scriptural understanding is associated with straining over stool: not in order to shock but because, as the psychiatrist Erik H Erikson observed, a revelation is always associated with a repudiation'. Osborne goes further, however, and anchors the play's whole spiritual debate in the language of blood and bone and the body.

For two-thirds of its length, the play seems close to a masterpiece. If it finally declines, it is because Osborne cannot translate his psychological understanding of Luther's defiance into a plausible portrait of its consequences. Luther's anti-Catholic stance triggered violent social disturbances, including the Peasants' War of 1524-5.

But Osborne never fully explains Luther's rejection of the peasants, and there is something strangely cursory about his final image of the hero as a domesticated, child-cradling figure. Eloquent on the causes of Luther's revolt, Osborne deals negligently with its effects.

But Peter Gill's production, with its processing monks, religious rituals and brocaded visions of Papal power, has a beautifully choreographed clarity that colonises the whole Olivier space. The real surprise, however, is Sewell, who not only conveys Luther's mixture of spiritual truculence and hollow-eyed physical fallibility but, in the great set pieces, shows a fire and venom, and an ability to snap out the hard consonants, that evokes this theatre's eponymous patron.

There is sterling support from Richard Griffiths as an audience-teasing Tetzel, Malcolm Sinclair as a silkily menacing Cardinal and Timothy West as Luther's wise Augustinian mentor. But the evening's greatest pleasure lies in the reclamation of Osborne, and the reminder that he was far more than a chronicler of contemporary anger. Michael Billington

Until November 14. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


What's on Stage
8th October 2001 -


It takes some nerve on director Peter Gill's part to place his leading man (Rufus Sewell) with his back to the audience for the opening
ive minutes. Only Sewell's tonsured wig is visible initially, but he grows forcefully into the part of 16th century radical Martin

John Osborne's 1961 drama is a marathon three-hour piece, and only the National's resources could have assembled a cast of this quality
to do it justice. Alison Chitty's marbled, monastic sets echo with ascetism, whilst live music and deeply resonant ensemble singing lend
the evening a meditative temper.

The thrust of Luther's stance decreed that faith could endure irrespective of religious orthodoxy, and that peddling guilt for profit corrupted
the churches themselves. Such an attitude would doubtless have found favour with the anarchic Osborne, but by and large he leaves the
script free of unrestrained angst.

Sewell lives and breathes the role for every second. Whether scrubbing floors with a zealous vigour, or in the grip of palsied
torment, his performance keeps you riveted
. Geoffrey Hutchings as the gruff, disappointed father leads the comic exchanges with a
flourish. 'Too much wine?  I could drink this monk's piss from here to Gabriel Hall!' he storms indignantly.

Equally striking is Richard Griffiths' role as the tainted Johann Tetzel. Explaining the church's sale of bonds to the living or dead to spare their
damnation, he engages the audience like a stand-up genius. Almost pantomime in its gross campfoolery, it's a turn that won an ovation of its
own, with Griffiths clearly enjoying himself hugely.

But it's the growth of Luther from convulsed striver to self-justified opposer that we're there to concentrate on. 'You always talk as if lightning were
about to strike behind you,' he is advised. A soul in torment, seeking release, it isn't until he replaces monastic monotony with college contemplation
that his mind begins to soar. A sagacious Timothy West becomes his confidant and adviser, although Luther's obsessions with ailments of the
body and spirit prevail throughout.

Wisdom is fashioned into Osborne's script like ripples in the Christ carving that's hung aloft. The playwright loved a good rant, and the pulpit scenes
end with the front rows taking cover from a hail of frothy phlegm. But the anger is well-directed, against notions of state and church control, whilst
ntroducing enough doubts to balance the issue against Luther.

Sewell is awesome throughout. How does his voice stand up to it, you ask yourself? 'To go against one's conscience is neither safe
nor honest,' pleads Luther, with Osborne's wrathful face swimming into view.
If only some ire could have been spent on the audience,
whose endless coughs and sneezes spread diseases all night long. A plague upon their houses - if there isn't one already.

Mystic, hypochondriac and doubter. Osborne and Sewell present us with all these options, whilst preserving the man who offered
wholesome original blessing over wholly original sin.

Gareth Thompson



The Evening Standard - This Is London
Monday, October 8

The angry young monk

Dir: Peter Gill.Rufus Sewell, Richard Griffiths, Maxine Peake, Timothy West, GeoffreyHutchings, Malcolm Sinclair

by Nicholas de Jongh

Trevor Nunn has interestingly brought back John Osborne, the first Angry Young Man of the modern movement,
into the National Theatre repertoire. Peter Gill's spectacular, sumptuous production of Luther is, however, quite
the wrong choice of Osborne. Some of the playwright's early-period work, such as The Entertainer, Epitaph for
George Dillon and Under Plain Cover, is unjustly neglected and undervalued. This beautifully-acted revival, despite
the force and emotional impact of Rufus Sewell's remarkable title-role performance
, does not convince me of the
play's vitality or surviving value. Its power lies in Osborne's sizzling eloquence, in the anger and anguish of Luther's
pulpit appeals and defiance of the Pope at the Diet of Worms.

With its 12 scenes, 24-year time span and half-dozen locations, Luther has the trappings of an history chronicle, though
its prime concern is religion and the torments of a troubled soul: Martin Luther, the man who launched the Protestant
Reformation, embarks on a voyage of spiritual discovery, comes to realise man is saved by faith not good works or the
buying of indulgences. It's very hard to make such cerebral and spiritual musings dramatic. The plot lines are loose and
diffuse. The Peasants' Revolt, of whose bloody signs Gill makes too little, is viewed through the reported experience of
Andrew Woodall's impassioned Knight. As Luther's father, Hans, Geoffrey Hutchings is impressively hard-edged and
cold. Sadly, the character is almost superfluous to requirements.

Gill, as if acknowledging these difficulties, tries to compensate, bolstering the production with the grand, glamorous scale
and sense of spectacle Osborne wanted. The massive, pillared facade of a chapel, designed by Alison Chitty, commands
centre stage. Richard Griffiths's Tetzel, a religious huckster, arrives in the midst of a riot of colourful banners. Malcolm
Sinclair in fine form as a feline Cardinal sits amid scarlet and gold. The Diet of Worms is all glitter and grandeur. At the same
time Gill vividly conveys the sense of religious and confessional hysteria that infests Luther's order of monks, a 12-strong
monkish choir and chorus steeped in ritual and disturbance.

Amazing how unseductive and unhelpful expensive theatrical affects can be. It's Rufus Sewell alone, except when Malcolm
Sinclair's Cardinal wheedles and needles, who excites. His Luther develops and matures. At first appearance, this
scowling, black-cowled monk is all awkward humility and submission. But his eyes have pent-up anger about them.
He has all the supple tension of a cat about to spring. His voice, when he confesses, has the throttled, fearful vehemence
of a man teetering on the verge of breakdown. By the time he has developed into a fully-fledged rebel, and before the
domestic finale with its hopes of heavenly after-life, Sewell pitches heart, soul and voice into thrilling tirades of defiance.


Now Playing
National Theatre: Olivier Sep 29, Oct 1-4, 6, 17-20, 22 & 23, 30 & 31, Nov 7-10, 12-14, 7.15pm, Oct 5, 7pm (press night), Oct 6, 18, 20, 23, Nov 1, 10, 14, 2pm 10-32, concs available


The London Times

Divine mystery
A revival of Osborne's Luther leaves a search for meaning too
Anyone surveying the theatrical landscape in the early 1960s could have joked that you wait 20 years for an historical epic and then three come along at once. Curiously, all three were plays that worried at religion. Thomas More chose to put the service of God before his service to the state; Pizarro wavered between the Christian God as Man and the Inca Man-God; and Luther . . . well, it is not easy to see what John Osborne wanted to show us about the founder of Protestantism.

He is a man who looked back in anger at the Catholic Church’s history and rebelled against it, but after he makes his celebrated declaration — “Here I stand, etc” — halfway through the second act Osborne’s dramatic grasp of the historical situation fatally slackens. Peasants rush on and are slaughtered, but we are not told why or by whom. Luther the rebel, the golden-tongued, the constipated, is at the core of Osborne’s play, but what is the play about, exactly? Peter Gill’s production is the first to be seen in London since its Royal Court premiere in 1961, and he confidently uses and fills the grim Olivier stage with bold scenic effects. Alison Chitty’s design places a great Romanesque doorway at the centre of the rear wall, to which Rufus Sewell’s Luther will eventually hammer his thesis against indulgences. Long tables stretch towards us; lines of monks publicly confess; there is ritualised coming and going — and though at last this looks like filling the stage because it’s an absurdly big stage that has to be filled, most of the ways in which Gill moves his cast about on it show his flair for visual excitement.

Equally, in the great set pieces that Osborne wrote, for Luther’s confrontation with Cardinal Cajetan (Malcolm Sinclair at his suavest) or Tetzel’s hard sell for indulgences, this production allows the actors to let the words sing out. Richard Griffiths’s Tetzel plays the audience like a music-hall star, swerving between cajolery and threat, his face bulging like a zephyr at full blast.

Sewell’s face is gaunt, haunted by a religious panic that believably grabs hold of itself to become fundamentalist frenzy. His performance is at its most powerful when in the pulpit, shovelling scorn on the craze for relics, but elsewhere too, when brought before superiors, his self-defences have a mellifluous and attractive cogency. Osborne makes much of the sluggish movement of Luther’s bowels, his eventual relief mysteriously identified with divine truth, but Sewell’s stomach cramps and attacks of the staggers are a wee bit too picturesque to carry conviction.

Osborne, himself a Christian, may have been intrigued by his hero’s problems with fathers, both the natural variety and the eternal, and he seems to argue that not until he became a father himself did Luther find happiness. But the shift from the worldwide to the domestic is a bewildering let-down. Sewell’s face, fitfully visible through the smoke of burning books, stirs memories of the Wizard of Oz, but take away the glamorous staging and both Oz and Luther turn out to have a smaller stature than expected.


The Daily Telegraph

ISSUE 2326
Monday 8 October 2001

Not so much inspiration as perspiration
 For Charles Spencer, John Osborne's Luther (1961) at the National Theatre is a three-and-a-quarter-hour bum-number

REVIEWERS rarely admit to boredom, although you can't go to the theatre four or five times a week without being bored.

It's probably a desire to make our subject seem interesting that inspires this conspiracy of silence - plus the conviction, fostered by generations of teachers, that those who find things boring are boring themselves.

Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that John Osborne's Luther (1961) is a three-and-a-quarter-hour bum-number. It's impressive but boring, intelligently staged but boring, well-acted but boring. Imagine an interminable history lesson relieved only by occasional trips to the school chapel to listen to God-bothering pi-jaws from the pulpit, and you will get some idea of just how punishingly dull this play is.

Like so much that is tedious in the theatre, the play was heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht. It consists of a series of illustrative scenes depicting Luther's life, from his earliest days in an Augustinian monastery to his excommunication and the peasant wars that followed. There are big set-pieces, like the Diet of Worms, when Luther refused to retract his condemnations of the Catholic Church, and more intimate moments, when he provides us with far more news than we need to know about his chronic constipation. Even his great moment of spiritual revelation is accompanied by a blissful evacuation. I put it down to that ghastly diet of worms.

This epic revival in the Olivier is well-timed. After the terrible events of September 11, we are evidently entering a new period of religious wars. And the legacy of Luther, and the Reformation, live on in the continuing anguish of Northern Ireland. Osborne had a mighty, enduring theme here - the horrors committed by man in God's name - but, throughout, one senses authorial perspiration, rather than inspiration.

There are flashes of echt Osborne. The spiel of the indulgence seller, Johann Tetzel, played with unforgettably greasy insinuation by Richard Griffiths, comes across as one of Osborne's beloved music-hall shticks, while Luther's sermons blaze with the intemperate fire of a God-inspired Jimmy Porter.

But these scenes also serve as reminders that Osborne was far better at full-throttle theatrical monologues than at dialogue between subtly observed characters, and much of Luther comes over as a trudge of a pageant play.

The director, Peter Gill, stages it with great assurance and clarity, with the help of a fine, imposing design of ecclesiastical arches by Alison Chitty, but there is no mistaking the fact that much of the writing has all the dynamism of a school textbook.

As if to compensate, Gill parades a large chorus of chanting Augustinians as if they were the monastic equivalent of the Rockettes. They glide round the stage with a precision the producers of Holiday on Ice would envy, and bow their heads in prayer with spooky synchronicity - not so much the Roman Catholic Church as Roman Catholic Kitsch.

Rufus Sewell is a suitably anguished Luther, all charismatic cheekbones and painful belly gripes, and he memorably charts the way in which the character's spiritual despair is transformed into dangerous conviction. There is strong support, too. Malcolm Sinclair is hypnotically subtle and devious as Cajetan, the Cardinal who tries to persuade Luther to recant, with a mixture of smarm and menace; Geoffrey Hutchings provides some welcome humour as Luther's irreverent dad, complaining that a wine glass is as empty as a nun's womb; and Timothy West gives a lovely performance of spiritual humility and wisdom as Luther's confidant, Johann von Staupitz.

Despite all their endeavours, however, Luther remains a long, hard slog.

Tickets: 020 7452 3000


The Independent

Luther, NT Olivier Theatre, London
John Osborne's angry young monk
Paul Taylor
10 October 2001

John Osborne did not, as far as we know, ever hammer 95 theses into a cathedral door - but that was not for want of a nail, or indeed a thesis. It would be hard to think of a more fitting historical subject for him than Martin Luther: the angry young monk who took on the corrupt Catholic Church unleashed onto the stage by the angry young man who took on the moribund English theatre. Like Luther, in whom revelation and constipation were intimately related, Osborne tended to think from the gut. My appetite was whetted not just by the intriguing prospect of oblique self-portraiture, but because Luther seems to exhibit, to the point of parody, all those rare qualities that justify a revival in the vast arena of the Olivier.
It's a neglected work by a major dramatist (not seen in London since its Royal Court premiere in 1961); it has a teemingcast that no unsubsidised theatre could afford; it tackles a huge public theme. The result, though, left me feeling numb with respect rather than tingling with a sense of discovery. Peter Gill's clear, confident production, with its imposing design of Romanesque doorways, certainly does its best to colonise the space. The symmetrically swarming monks are choreographed so well you keep expecting them to break into a chorus of "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Matt Luther?". The Olivier as a prime site for direct-to-audience address is reconfirmed when Richard Griffiths's campy, teasing Tetzel, the outrageous indulgence-seller, works the house like a music hall star, or when Rufus Sewell's charismatically haunted, hollow-cheeked Luther spits out his set-piece sermons like someone vomiting red-hot tin tacks.
Yet, to my eye, this epic venue also exposes and magnifies the play's weaknesses - in particular its failure to throw into sharp focus the connections between what happened in the claustrophobic world of Luther's psyche and what happened in the world outside.In the light of the events of 11 September, Gill has naturally claimed that there's an uncomfortable timeliness in reviving a play about the father of one form of religious fundamentalism. But Osborne's Luther is no precursor of Osama bin Laden. On the contrary, he is caught up in an agonising contradiction: the prophet of a terrifying individualism of the spirit ("No man can die
for another, or believe for another or answer for another") can't help but feel dubious when such ideas start a mass movement.The ambiguity of Luther's response to the Peasants' War is typically under-dramatised. Indeed, you might be left wondering what the hell is happening here when an army of the said peasants rush on and are slaughtered in a succession of Goya-esque freeze-frames.
The cast - which includes Timothy West (attractively humane and wise as Luther's sorely tried spiritual adviser) and Malcolm Sinclair who is all lethal suavity as Cardinal Cajetan - is so big that there is no need for the doubling of any speaking roles. But this highlights the wastefulness with which Osborne picks up and discards subjects. Take the conflict between fathers and sons. The hero begins his
revolution by defying his miner father (Geoffrey Hutchings) who wants him to embark on a worldly career. Having asserted his crucial role, the patriarch then vanishes and the theme is developed only desultorily until the ironic final image of Luther, now himself a child-cradling father, in the anti-climactic closing scene. An honourable evening, and a long one.


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