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14, 2001, Sunday

If He butchers us, He makes us live Theatre

By James Inverne


When the National Theatre scheduled Peter Gill's riveting revival of John Osborne's Luther, it could not have known how terribly appropriate it would be. For this is a play - rooted in rage and pain - that depicts one of Christianity's most famous angry young men and unflinchingly examines the price of his fury.

In challenging corruption in the Church, the 16th-century monk brought about the foundation of Protestantism. But his zeal also inspired religious wars. Osborne wonders aloud whether Martin Luther might not have achieved more, with less violence. It is ironic that many now believe Osborne, the revolutionary who set 1960s theatre ablaze with his invectives against complacent society, would have been a greater writer had his work been more temperate. The stakes for Luther were of course far higher. And the lines Osborne gives him - "In the teeth of death we live. If He butchers us, He makes us live" - have frightening relevance in these days of suicide bombers and religious fanatics.

Osborne's brilliance (and it is a brilliant play, despite his usual longueurs) is in making us sympathise with his protagonist before leading us to question his actions in sudden horror. Gill's spare production in the Olivier gets the tone absolutely right. With only a monumental pair of steel doors for a set, much of the action takes place in and around the audience, involving us in the debate.

The floppy-haired Rufus Sewell is tremendously likeable as Luther, and you find yourself rooting for this twitchy, nervy cleric. He balances the malcontent's boisterous outbursts with self-doubt and sharp fits of pain (Luther was ravaged by bowel trouble). Whenever he gives in to his anger, shaking with bile, he feels it in his gut.

In wonderfully smug contrast, Richard Griffiths has a ball as the decadent monk Tetzel, who sells indiscriminate Papal pardons to the highest bidder. In his address to his punters, the hulking Griffiths hilariously catches the bullying humour of those con men who run fake auctions around Oxford Street.

Timothy West is all kindness as Luther's mentor, Staupitz. But he knows he cannot stand up to his protege's growing fanaticism.

"I beg of you not to be too violent." he stammers. That's the line that stuck in my mind as I trudged wearily home to the next news bulletin.


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