The angry young monk
by Nicholas de Jongh, London Evening Standard, 8 October 2001
Director Peter Gill. With Rufus Sewell, Richard Griffiths, Maxine Peake, Timothy West, Geoffrey Hutchings, Malcolm Sinclair
Trevor Nunn has interestingly brought back John Osborne, the first Angry Young Man of the modern movement, into the National Theatre repertoire. Peter Gill's spectacular, sumptuous production of Luther is, however, quite the wrong choice of Osborne. Some of the playwright's early-period work, such as The Entertainer, Epitaph for George Dillon and Under Plain Cover, is unjustly neglected and undervalued. This beautifully-acted revival, despite the force and emotional impact of Rufus Sewell's remarkable title-role performance, does not convince me of the play's vitality or surviving value. Its power lies in Osborne's sizzling eloquence, in the anger and anguish of Luther's pulpit appeals and defiance of the Pope at the Diet of Worms.
With its 12 scenes, 24-year time span and half-dozen locations, Luther has the trappings of an history chronicle, though its prime concern is religion and the torments of a troubled soul: Martin Luther, the man who launched the Protestant Reformation, embarks on a voyage of spiritual discovery, comes to realise man is saved by faith not good works or the buying of indulgences. It's very hard to make such cerebral and spiritual musings dramatic. The plot lines are loose and diffuse. The Peasants' Revolt, of whose bloody signs Gill makes too little, is viewed through the reported experience of Andrew Woodall's impassioned Knight. As Luther's father, Hans, Geoffrey Hutchings is impressively hard-edged and cold. Sadly, the character is almost superfluous to requirements.
Gill, as if acknowledging these difficulties, tries to compensate, bolstering the production with the grand, glamorous scale and sense of spectacle Osborne wanted. The massive, pillared facade of a chapel, designed by Alison Chitty, commands centre stage. Richard Griffiths's Tetzel, a religious huckster, arrives in the midst of a riot of colourful banners. Malcolm Sinclair in fine form as a feline Cardinal sits amid scarlet and gold. The Diet of Worms is all glitter and grandeur. At the same time Gill vividly conveys the sense of religious and confessional hysteria that infests Luther's order of monks, a 12-strong monkish choir and chorus steeped in ritual and disturbance.
Amazing how unseductive and unhelpful expensive theatrical affects can be. It's Rufus Sewell alone, except when Malcolm Sinclair's Cardinal wheedles and needles, who excites. His Luther develops and matures. At first appearance, this scowling, black-cowled monk is all awkward humility and submission. But his eyes have pent-up anger about them. He has all the supple tension of a cat about to spring. His voice, when he confesses, has the throttled, fearful vehemence of a man teetering on the verge of breakdown. By the time he has developed into a fully-fledged rebel, and before the domestic finale with its hopes of heavenly after-life, Sewell pitches heart, soul and voice into thrilling tirades of defiance.
National Theatre: Olivier October 17-20, 22 & 23, 30 & 31, November 7-10, 12-14, 7.15pm, matinees October 18, 20, 23, November 1, 10, 14, 2pm, ends November 14 £10-£32, concessions available
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