The time for resurrection is nowJames Woodall talks to Peter Gill as he restages one of the great stories of European history
By James Woodall, Financial Times, October 6 2001
John Osborne is not a playwright you'd automatically associate with religious upheaval. There is some evidence that he became more religious towards the end of his life - he died in 1994 - but in his great plays, Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer or Inadmissible Evidence, the protagonists often relish a kind of godlessness while railing against their inner emptiness. So perhaps the most surprising work in Osborne's output is his 1961 play, Luther, which deals with the spiritual struggles of the 16th-century German reformer and the political fallout of his mom- entous break with Rome.
Osborne was, he later admitted, in no hurry to finish the play after overcoming what he called his "natural indolence" in the autumn of 1960. But completed it was, and then staged, in Nottingham, with the late Tony Richardson directing and Albert Finney in the lead role. Astonishingly, although it's been done from time to time in repertory, tonight's opening of Luther at the Royal National Theatre will be its first London outing in 40 years.
Its subject matter may have made it unfashionable and irrelevant. The instigator of modern Protestantism is not, arguably, someone who has much to say in a deeply secular age. Writer and director Peter Gill, who saw the original, was asked recently by the Royal National Theatre to revive it and he was glad to take it on: "I have memories of some scenes in 1961, certain images, and of Luther's inner turmoil. But strangely that doesn't correspond at all with the play I've read again and directed." Perhaps, after 40 years, times have changed? "Yes, and the play works now. I can't really account for its not being done over all that time. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the play has a big cast."
Compared with most contemporary drama, the cast is indeed large (14 characters) and the part of Luther - played in this production by young British star Rufus Sewell — forbidding. "Most theatres wouldn't find it commercially viable," says Gill. "And it's been pretty hair-raising staging it at the Olivier. Osborne wrote it for a proscenium theatre and was meticulous in his stage directions. Much has had to be made right for the huge open space of the Olivier. And the more you perform and work on the text, the more you realise how cunningly constructed it was."
The play depicts Martin Luther's early years as an Augustinian monk and his personal angst over the form of his faith (as Osborne said of his reasons for writing the play, "I was not yet reconciled to an inheritance of the perpetual certainty of doubt"), and the events surrounding Luther's central act of defiance in 1517, when he fastened to a church door "95 theses" disputing, in essence, the practice of issuing indulgences for a price to cleanse ordinary folk of their sins. Luther loathed the abuses this had led to, and indeed history is clear that Johann Tetzel, a Dominican under direct orders from the Vatican (played at the RNT by Richard Griffiths), was zealous in his extortion of funds for the rebuilding of St Peter's in Rome.
Act Three presents the Diet of Worms in 1521, when Luther was called before Emperor Charles V to recant. He did not. The Peasants' Revolt followed. Luther first encouraged, then turned against them, and by the 1530s Europe had been split, in confessional terms, for all time.
It is, of course, one of the great stories of European history. Osborne responded to it with a mixture of rich theatricality - staging the Diet of Worms required a special chutzpah, to which he was no stranger - and acute psychological veracity. In Osborne's reading, Luther's afflictions and aspirations, tics and tantrums, make him both suffering hero and fallible human, one of the stage's most memorable doubters. "My bones fail," he says in Scene One, "my bones are shattered and fall away, my bones fail and all that's left of me is a scraped marrow and a dying jelly" - offering just a taste of Luther's intense self-scrutiny and the play's visceral language. But does it have anything to tell us in 2001?
"It's about many things," Peter Gill replies: "faith and doubt, fathers and sons and a challenge to authority. It's about the nurturing of talent, by an older man — the monk Staupitz (played by Timothy West) — of a younger, Luther. And though I'm not the sort of director who likes to make large claims in order to promote a political point, I'm struck, in the light of the World Trade Center attacks, by one thing that became uncomfortably clear in rehearsal. Here is this man proclaiming from his pulpit an extremely fundamental view of Christianity. Lutheranism is not about that now, and if there'd been no Luther, something would have happened in Germany anyway. But given what we now know about a type of fundamentalism, this inflexibility has a shocking resonance."
And what about Gill's own religious affiliations? "I was a cradle Catholic. My mother had all the Catholic dogma and I was raised, strictly, inside it, in South Wales. You carry around that kind of upbringing wherever you go. But that's not what matters. Luther's a great play by a great playwright. It's been unjustly neglected and now's the right time for it, and at the National. That, after all, is what a national theatre is for."
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