National — Olivier Theatre
by Roger Foss, What's on in London, 10 October 2001
Rufus Sewell returns to the National Theatre as an angry young friar in Peter Gill's new production of John Osborne's rarely performed 1961 play about the great Protestant theological revolutionary Martin Luther. When Luther railed against the spiritual impoverishment of the Church and nailed his heretical theses challenging the sale of papal indulgences on a church door in Wittenburg in 1515 it was surely a seminal event in the history of humankind. Holy wars were unleashed, Europe became polarised, Catholicism would never be the same again and the division of Western Christianity has continued to this day. Osborne's sub-Brechtian epic drama suggests some of the politics of the time, although he is more concerned with the personal, depicting Luther as a flawed intellectual caught up in events rather than driving them and a man who can't come to terms with his plain-speaking father, or indeed God. Typically, Luther is tortured by bowel trouble as much as the theological doubt which has thrown his system of beliefs into turmoil.
But even with lots of incense wafting over lengthy churchified rituals, at three hours and twenty minutes Osborne is in danger of being misspelt as 'Osbore'. Gill's anxious production can't disguise the fact that Osborne's over-wordy, anally-fixated text is short on new ideas, which does tends to make Luther a bit of a pain in the arse
rather than a focus for debate about the nature of faith — a debate which the National Theatre perhaps ought to reflect in an age when the world is at war with religious fundamentalism. As Luther, Sewell maintains the hollow-eyed look of a constipated monk straining to find salvation, and he is magnificently intense in the angry set-piece sermons. Timothy West as Luther's confessor, and Geoffrey Hutchings as Luther senior also give star turn performances, as does Richard Griffiths as the grossly bloated Tetzel, a girth and mirth establishment priest who dispenses indulgences to his congregation like a panto dame dishing out sweets. But it's harder to take Osborne seriously when he excludes women from one of the most important religious revolutions of all time, sidelining Luther's wife, the ex-nun Katherine (Maxine Peake), to a homely walk-on part.
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