by John Osborne
Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre
In repertory until 14 November
This revival of John Osborne's 1961 play about Martin Luther, the instigator of the
Protestant Reformation seems very timely in the current political climate. Luther's story
is that of a man who revolted against the secularisation of religion.
In the early 16th century, much was done in the name of religion.Unfortunately, nearly all
of it was bad. The Pope and his minions were clearly keener on obtaining wealth in this
world than storing up good deeds for the next.
This play tells Luther's story, using a combination of debate anddeclamation. It
relies heavily upon an excellent performance by Rufus Sewell in the title role. We
initially see him making the apparently irrevocable decision to become a monk. This is a
very big decision to take it for the pale, ghostly figure whose two brothers have already
been lost to the plague. At first, he is nervous and uncertain but very soon, he begins to
rail against the dishonesty of his religion and its leader.
Veteran, Peter Gill's production places the subject matter perfectly in its time by the
use of a simple, bare set designed by Alison Chitty containing intricate carvings such as
a massive crucifix, and superb use of lighting by Peter Mumford. Everything looks grey and
dark which is surely how life must have seemed in a monastery 500 years ago. The hard work
and boredom of a novice monk is also well demonstrated.
At an early stage, Luther's enquiring mind not only demonstrates that he is the greatest
scholar of his generation receiving his doctorate at 29 when no one else in the country
under 50 is so endowed. It also begins to get him into trouble as he starts asking
questions that are better silenced.
He sharpens his verbal teeth jousting with his father played by Geoffrey Hutchings and the
vicar general of his order played in a lovely cameo byTimothy West. We also hear many
references to his rivalry with Erasmus.
He then goes on to challenge Johan Tetzel, the kind of charlatan that one expects to find
selling patented medicines in the Wild West. In a performance somewhat reminiscent of
Frankie Howerd, TV favourite, Richard Griffiths sells indulgences that are guaranteed to
save the souls of those
who buy them or even of their relations. While this is funny, it is also very hard to take
when one finds out that Tetzel is doing this on behalf of Pope Leo X.
Osborne has a great deal of fun at the expense of these dishonest clerics. Not only does
he show the traffic in indulgences, he also points out that in Germany alone at this time
the relics business was booming. There were no fewer than eighteen certified coffins
containing the bodies of the (twelve)
Apostles. Leo is clearly happier hunting with his gigantic wolfhounds than praying.
Rufus Sewell, in the guise of the scathingly satirical Luther, then ascends the
pulpit and gives a memorable, perfectly acted sermon attacking religious dishonesty based
on his fundamentalist reading of the Gospels.
This is where parallels with current day issues begin to appear. Is it right to raise a
mob for a religious war in which many die? Luther unequivocally believes that it is. The
statement from his sermon that "we are living in a dangerous time" seems all too
It is very good to see that the Royal National Theatre is still willing to address serious
historical issues. The level of debate is generally very high and far more successfully
depicts one of the giants of history than a series of A-level lessons. It is only by
understanding the impact that Luther had on religion and society in his time that we can
see why religious simplicity and a blind obedience to the Pope were challenged and beaten.
This play is also an interesting view of the work of John Osborne since, strange as it may
seem, there are definite parallels between Martin Luther and the angry young, Jimmy
Porter. It would probably not be too wide of the mark to suggest that Osborne has
introduced an autobiographical strain into each of these plays.
Reviewed by Philip Fisher for Theatreworld Internet Magazine