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 five minutes. Only
Sewell's tonsured wig is visible initially, but he grows forcefully into the part of 16th
century radical Martin Luther. John Osborne's 1961 drama is a marathon three-hour
piece, and only the National's resources could have assembled a cast of this qualityto 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
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.