A revival of Osborne's Luther leaves a search for meaning too
By Jeremy Kingston, The Times, 8 October 2001
Anyone surveying the theatrical landscape in the early 1960s could have joked that you wait 20 years for an historical epic and then three come along at once. Curiously, all three were plays that worried at religion. Thomas More chose to put the service of God before his service to the state; Pizarro wavered between the Christian God as Man and the Inca Man-God; and Luther ... well, it is not easy to see what John Osborne wanted to show us about the founder of Protestantism.
He is a man who looked back in anger at the Catholic Church’s history and rebelled against it, but after he makes his celebrated declaration — “Here I stand, etc” — halfway through the second act Osborne’s dramatic grasp of the historical situation fatally slackens. Peasants rush on and are slaughtered, but we are not told why or by whom. Luther the rebel, the golden-tongued, the constipated, is at the core of Osborne’s play, but what is the play about, exactly? Peter Gill’s production is the first to be seen in London since its Royal Court premiere in 1961, and he confidently uses and fills the grim Olivier stage with bold scenic effects. Alison Chitty’s design places a great Romanesque doorway at the centre of the rear wall, to which Rufus Sewell’s Luther will eventually hammer his thesis against indulgences. Long tables stretch towards us; lines of monks publicly confess; there is ritualised coming and going — and though at last this looks like filling the stage because it’s an absurdly big stage that has to be filled, most of the ways in which Gill moves his cast about on it show his flair for visual excitement.
Equally, in the great set pieces that Osborne wrote, for Luther’s confrontation with Cardinal Cajetan (Malcolm Sinclair at his suavest) or Tetzel’s hard sell for indulgences, this production allows the actors to let the words sing out. Richard Griffiths’s Tetzel plays the audience like a music-hall star, swerving between cajolery and threat, his face bulging like a zephyr at full blast.
Sewell’s face is gaunt, haunted by a religious panic that believably grabs hold of itself to become fundamentalist frenzy. His performance is at its most powerful when in the pulpit, shovelling scorn on the craze for relics, but elsewhere too, when brought before superiors, his self-defences have a mellifluous and attractive cogency. Osborne makes much of the sluggish movement of Luther’s bowels, his eventual relief mysteriously identified with divine truth, but Sewell’s stomach cramps and attacks of the staggers are a wee bit too picturesque to carry conviction.
Osborne, himself a Christian, may have been intrigued by his hero’s problems with fathers, both the natural variety and the eternal, and he seems to argue that not until he became a father himself did Luther find happiness. But the shift from the worldwide to the domestic is a bewildering let-down. Sewell’s face, fitfully visible through the smoke of burning books, stirs memories of the Wizard of Oz, but take away the glamorous staging and both Oz and Luther turn out to have a smaller stature than expected.
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