Olivier Theatre, London
by Michael Billington, The Guardian, 8 October 8 2001
It is staggering to think that John Osborne's Luther has had to wait 40 years for a major revival. Even with its obvious faults, the play invites comparison with Brecht and Shaw, and offers a perfect vehicle for Osborne's scalding rhetoric; and at the Olivier it gets a matchingly fine production by Peter Gill, and a revelatory performance from Rufus Sewell.
In retrospect, Martin Luther seems the perfect hero for a dramatist who, in his autobiography, refers to the "nag of disquiet" with which he was born; throughout, Osborne finds in Luther an echo of his own stubborn defiance of authority. First, Luther defies his miner father by becoming an Augustinian monk. Then he defies his chosen order by embracing its disciplines with subversive enthusiasm. Finally, he defies the Catholic hierarchy by his rejection of Papal indulgences and by his belief that "the just shall live by faith alone" rather than by their works.
It seems right that a famously protesting dramatist — who in 1961 was arrested for civil disobedience — should write about the architect of Protestantism. But Osborne also intelligently seizes on Luther's anal imagery as the clue to the rebel-reformer.
In the great sermon Luther preaches at Wittenberg in 1517, the struggle with scriptural understanding is associated with straining over stool: not in order to shock but because, as the psychiatrist Erik H Erikson observed, "a revelation is always associated with a repudiation". Osborne goes further, however, and anchors the play's whole spiritual debate in the language of blood and bone and the body.
For two-thirds of its length, the play seems close to a masterpiece. If it finally declines, it is because Osborne cannot translate his psychological understanding of Luther's defiance into a plausible portrait of its consequences. Luther's anti-Catholic stance triggered violent social disturbances, including the Peasants' War of 1524-5.
But Osborne never fully explains Luther's rejection of the peasants, and there is something strangely cursory about his final image of the hero as a domesticated, child-cradling figure. Eloquent on the causes of Luther's revolt, Osborne deals negligently with its effects.
But Peter Gill's production, with its processing monks, religious rituals and brocaded visions of Papal power, has a beautifully choreographed clarity that colonises the whole Olivier space. The real surprise, however, is Sewell, who not only conveys Luther's mixture of spiritual truculence and hollow-eyed physical fallibility but, in the great set pieces, shows a fire and venom, and an ability to snap out the hard consonants, that evokes this theatre's eponymous patron.
There is sterling support from Richard Griffiths as an audience-teasing Tetzel, Malcolm Sinclair as a silkily menacing Cardinal and Timothy West as Luther's wise Augustinian mentor. But the evening's greatest pleasure lies in the reclamation of Osborne, and the reminder that he was far more than a chronicler of contemporary anger.
Until November 14. Box office: 020-7452 3000.
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