by Sheridan Morley, The Spectator, 20 October 2001
The dramatist John Osborne was luckier than he ever knew or admitted. After Look Back in Anger his three major hits, The Entertainer, Luther and Inadmissible Evidence, had one thing in common: not great writing or even great directing, but three larger-than-life star players, each of whom had charisma enough to turn these often overwritten epics into unforgettable theatrical experiences. The Entertainer had Laurence Olivier; Luther had a young Albert Finney; and Inadmissible Evidence had Nicol Williamson at the short-lived top of his form. When these plays are revived now, it is always something of a shock to discover how overblown they are, and how badly they are inclined to fall apart when the central figure is played by an actor who is something less than mesmeric.
The current Luther at the Olivier, the first we have had in London since the original at the Royal Court 30 years ago, is one of the most extravagant follies that even the National has ever constructed. A cast of around 30 (including such vintage character actors as Timothy West, Neil Stacy, Richard Griffiths, Geoffrey Hutchings and Malcolm Sinclair), sets and costumes of extraordinary wealth and grandeur, and all this for fewer than 30 performances.
Maybe they should just have done it at Covent Garden, where vast expense for productions that vanish overnight is the rule rather than the exception; certainly Peter Gill's production is strongly operatic, but even his brilliant stage-management cannot hide the fact that we don't really have a drama here, just a three-hour ecclesiastical procession which occasionally stops long enough for Luther himself to have another rant from the pulpit about the evils of Rome.
There are debates here about the gritty Protestant Reformation versus the old, corrupt certainties of Catholicism, but Osborne never manages to engage his characters in anything more than a lot of shouting from one barricade to the other, and although Rufus Sewell has a fine, fiery anger in the title role, it is not enough to keep us involved throughout some interminable disputes. Sometimes the whole of the 16th century seems faster than this production, and although each of the aforementioned character actors gets one good scene with Luther (or usually against him) they all end up looking like guest stars in some vast Hollywood 1950s biblical extravaganza.
I also began to wish they had made use of the Olivier's revolving stage; that way it wouldn't have taken what seems like 20 minutes to get every single character on and off again, not counting the procession of knights which holds up the action still further, until it is not so much slow as stopped entirely.
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