Olivier, London SE1
by Susannah Clapp, The Observer, 14 October 2001
Suddenly the stage is full of men having religious crises. First, Ronald Harwood's play about Mahler's conversion to Catholicism. Now John Osborne's 1961 drama about the trials suffered by Martin Luther as he fractured the Catholic Church. You'd think a play about a man of faith who caused an uprising and changed the world was bound to feel pressing at the moment. Not this one.
Luther straggles: from the leader's bowel complaints, through his problems with his Dad and his crises of faith, to the under-explained Peasants' Revolt. As in his more famous drama of protest, Look Back In Anger, Osborne's invigorating expression of outrage is more memorable than what he's actually debating. Protestantism — a religion of the word rather than of the image — poses a problem for the designer: Alison Chitty's grandiose black set — as glossy and unyielding as if it were carved out of polished coal — is more impressive than revealing. Rufus Sewell (who closes his eyes to tip you off that it's a big moment) smoulders so aesthetically that he makes constipation look like a designer ailment.
Timothy West is beautifully sly and poised as a sage old monk. Richard Griffiths gives a bravura comic display as a wily old fraud. But their sharpness only exposes an unwieldy structure. Luther now looks not so much historical as dated. Not least because, while discussing a kind of democracy, it oozes lordliness. After two and a half hours of men swishing around in robes, the one woman who squeaks into the play is an ex-nun with a dominatrix line in nannying. After that, all the talk of bums and bowels assumes a rather different aspect.
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