National Theatre, Olivier
by Maddy Costa, Time Out, 10 October 2001
There's nothing remote about John Osborne's Luther: he simmers with self-doubt, erupts with disgust at the dissipation of the Catholic Church, and is constantly tormented by his bowels. Writing 40 years ago about a man who lived more than four centuries before that, Osborne brought the religious revolutionary vibrantly to life, in a language both rich and earthy. Luther thinks of himself as 'a ripe stool in the world's straining anus'; in the play's most invigorating scene, a sermon Luther delivers directly before nailing up his 95 theses, he describes how he experienced enlightenment while sat on the lavatory.
Peter Gill's production revels in the scatological humour while relishing the fervent theological arguments and knotty ruminations on father-son relationships. The dialogue traces burning arcs across Alison Chitty's austere set. Each character — Luther's cockney father Hans, his tender mentor Staupitz, even the cynical Cardinal — gleams with humanity. Neither Gill nor Osborne are entirely successful in communicating Luther's immediate effect on history: the play skims confusingly through the peasants' revolt, which Gill represents in a rapid series of stylised tableaux. But each time the action spills into the stalls, Gill implicates us all in the explosive arguments about charity and faith.
Perhaps it was a related desire to help modern audiences identify with Luther that inspired the casting of Rufus Sewell. Delivering sermons, Sewell is electrifying, charismatic and burning with indignation; but he rises too easily to this fiery pitch, and treats Luther's constipation as an excuse to shake, totter and clutch at his stomach as though an alien were about to burst out. He's wonderfully supported, however, by Timothy West as the fond Staupitz, Mark Tandy as a swaggering Pope, and particularly Richard Griffiths as the slovenly Tetzel. It's typical of Osborne's lightness that Luther's friends and nemeses can be equally engaging.
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