by John Peter, Sunday Times, 14 October 2001
Martin Luther was the kind of revolutionary John Osborne wanted to be. His Luther (Olivier) portrays a man who has a cause. He looks back in anger, but looks forward with a generous, apostolic fervour to a world in which man can deal with his God without an intervening worldwide bureaucracy.
Rufus Sewell is the ideal actor to play him. Tense and controlled, the big, dark eyes both watchful and inward-looking, he turns before you into a public solitary. The play was something of a shocker in its time (1961), regarded as being about religion, rebellion, plus coprophilia. Yes, Luther did suffer from constipation (insomnia, too, though that would have created a different image), but what comes over in Peter Gill's production is a sense of Luther's entire being, aching body and striving soul, struggling for liberation. Sewell does not overplay the physical aspect: he is portraying the burden and the torment of a deeply personal faith that has to pay a physical price as well. As the play goes on, his face looks more and more like Cranach's famous paintings and engravings of Luther: bleak and bony, intense but vulnerable.
This is a big, angry, eloquent play. Seeing it again after so long, what impresses me is how deeply Osborne had immersed himself in his subject without making his play ponderous. When his Luther asks for God's help against the reason and wisdom of the world, he is not being an intellectual dropout: he is raging against the spiritual dogmatism of Aquinas, which wanted to explain everything rather than leave man alone with all the mysteries and obligations of grace and faith. The point is not which side you are on. What Osborne and Gill convey is the sense of a man wrestling with a system that has deadened the soul.
Luther spoke of a theology of the Cross: he wanted people to focus on Christ's suffering and what that suffering told them about God. Alison Chitty's sets illuminate the point. In the opening scene, the great romanesque interior is dominated by a huge crucifix, modelled on Grünewald's famous Crucifixion. This is the same image of unspeakable suffering that mesmerised Dostoevsky, and seems to say: believe, for this is what was done for you.
But this is not a religious play: it is a political-psychological play in a religious setting. For a demanding father and his church, substitute any ideal and a system that perverts it. Its weakest part is that which deals with the Peasants' Rising of 1525, and why Luther took the side of the German princes, with terrible consequences. This is too big a subject to be just an episode, and Osborne's use of the Knight as its narrator, a Representative Figure spouting grim ideology, is one of the deadliest of Brecht's bequests to modern drama.
Gill's direction has the purity, eloquence, intellectual vigour and sense of compassionate indignation that this flawed but compelling play needs. The actors respond with beautifully etched performances. Gill, whose handling of large groups and spaces is masterly, has not directed on this stage for 18 years. You can see what we have been missing.
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