by Peter Hepple, The Stage, 11 October 2001
I have long maintained that plays with a religious theme are the nearest thing we have to box office poison. John Osborne's Luther is no exception. It is long, heavily influenced by Brecht and would surely induce slumber were it not for Peter Gill's careful explanatory production and a range of monumental settings by Alison Chitty.
Having said that, however, I confess to being absorbed from beginning to end partly because of the production but mainly because it is by Osborne — the angry iconoclast on this occasion the dyed in the wool Christian whose impatience with his faith was due mostly to those who practised it.
He sees Luther as a man who preached purity and truth against a Catholic church which had not only espoused the selling of indulgences as a means for building ever more grand churches but had also become embroiled in politics. This allowed its cardinal princes to live in luxury.
Luther, played with honest commitment and a great deal of nervous energy by Rufus Sewell, is therefore a rebel in the mould of Jimmy Porter — torn by doubt from the moment he enters the Augustinian order.
After an introductory scene in which we meet Luther's father (Geoffrey Hutchings), a plain-spoken artisan whose influence on Martin is all too evident, Osborne provides us with a series of confrontations with the odious Tetzel (a magnificently comic performance by Richard Griffiths), peddling his indulgences like a market salesman; his saintly friend and confessor Von Staupitz (Timothy West); the smooth and sinister Cajetan (Malcolm Sinclair) and the seemingly reasonable Von Eck (Neil Stacy).
But the strongest scene is when the Knight (Andrew Woodall), surveying the carnage of the battlefield, reflects that the slaughter and misery is directly due to religion — which gives the play its present day resonances.
This lifts the play onto an undogmatic plane which wipes out what many will perceive as the tedium of what has gone before, redeemed by a considerable amount of spectacle and use of a well drilled ensemble of monks and knights.
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