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Trials and troubles of a holy man;
THEATRE

LAURENCE GREEN

LUTHER RNT- Olivier Theatre London SE1

THE man who shook the foundations of the Catholic church until it fell apart is the subject of this welcome revival of John Osborne's impassioned play, which marks its first London production for 30 years.

The year is 1506, the place is the Augustinian Order of Eremites convent at Erfurt, Germany, and the 34year-old Luther, the son of a peasant, is celebrating his first mass at the monastery.

"Most of my days are spent in silence. There's not much speaking, except to my confessor, " he tells his father. But, in struggling to match his spiritual duty to God with his terrestrial duty to Catholicism, Luther pours scorn over the lavish and ungodly life of the church hierarchy.

In particular, he lambasts the cleric John Tetzel's scam of selling "indulgences" or pardons that will absolve people from guilt.

Indeed, his attack on the Pope's authority, which supported this practice, and his issuing of a list of 95 objections to it resulted in Luther being declared an outlaw of the church.

He was then ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms, where, facing his accusers, he refused to give way.

The Reformation had started and Luther's links with the Catholic church were to be severed for good.

He became a national figure in his own country, but lost the support of the people when, in a peasants' revolt, he was hostile to their grievances.

The play ends with Luther married to the former nun Katherine von Bora and with a young son, having withdrawn from politics.

Ably directed by Peter Gill, this private and public epic unfolds through a series of portraits of 16th-century Europe, showing the Catholic church, in all its wisdom, corruption and glory, failing to embrace one of its most astonishing sons.

Admittedly, the production has its longueur - it runs well over three hours.

But, it does have memorable scenes, notably when Luther burns the papal bull that condemned his views and smoke rises from a small fire in the middle of the stage.

As the flawed anti-hero, pitted against his world, Rufus Sewell brings a quiet, austere dignity and power to the role, with his eyes darting around the audience as if seeking out approval - and complicity - for his actions.

He is strongly supported by Geoffrey Hutchins as his father, Mark Tandy as Pope Leo, Richard Griffiths as the roguish Tetzel and Timothy West as the sympathetic head of Luther's order, who sees the young man as a pure, naive and intellectual spirit.

In all then, a rewarding evening in the theatre.

Playing in repertory until November 14. Box office:

(020) 7 452-3000.

 

 

 

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