NORTHAMPTON, United Kingdom – In 2013, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the subsequent election of Pope Francis shocked the world, and the contrast in styles between the two men just added to the drama.

The story seems perfect for the stage: The German former doctrinal chief and the Argentinian Jesuit bishop of the slums, each representing competing visions of the Church.

It’s finally happened. “The Pope” opened June 8 at the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, England, and runs until June 22.

New Zealand’s Anthony McCarten seems perfect for the job of bringing the two popes to “life” on stage. Three of the last five Best Actor Oscars have gone to men playing historical figures in films written by McCarten: Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything”; Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in 2017’s “Darkest Hour”; and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in last year’s megahit “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“The Pope” is the author’s first work for the stage in 20 years, and the first to premier outside of New Zealand.

McCarten said he got the idea for the play when he happened to be in St. Peter’s Square when Francis was celebrating Mass, and his partner mentioned that Benedict was living in a convent behind the Vatican.

“I wondered how many years since we’ve had two popes coexist and when we saw it was over 700 years, the idea for the play was born,” he said in the program notes.

Although this idea of two coexisting popes was the genesis of the play, “The Pope” is actually about the build-up to Francis’s election – it imagines the relationship between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and contrasts the ideologies of the two men.

Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio in “The Pope” at the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, England. (Credit: Manuel Harlan/courtesy Royal and Derngate.)

McCarten’s liberal sympathies are obvious, but he is careful to write Benedict sympathetically, albeit with a critical eye. The play opens with Benedict, and Anton Lesser – probably best known as Qyburn in “Game of Thrones” – masterfully encapsulating the exhaustion and growing detachment from the job in the build-up to the historic papal resignation.

One Curial official once said to me, “Benedict could never let go of Joseph Ratzinger, the way his predecessors did. He never died to himself and let himself be reborn as Benedict XVI.” Lesser seems to instinctively understand this in his portrayal of the tired pontiff.

Less convincing is Nicholas Woodeson’s tango-dancing Cardinal Bergoglio, who exhibits none of the mannerisms or vocal stylings of the Argentine pontiff, aside from a slight Spanish accent. (Woodeson is a seasoned character actor, and for U.S. viewers probably most recognizable for another HBO series: He played Julius Caesar’s slave Posca in “Rome.”)

Part of the problem might be McCarten’s vision of how the relationship between the two men is a “debate between a conservative and a liberal, which speaks to a common phenomenon that we’re all faced with in the world today, whether in Europe or in what’s happening in America.”

Although Benedict is presented as well-rounded character, Bergoglio seems more a reflection of the author’s views of what a liberal vision of the Church could look like: In fact, McCarten writes that Bergoglio’s “true reformist agenda” could “reach naturally into many other areas of belief and doctrinal teaching.”

In addition to sexuality and celibacy, the playwright mentions the resurrection and ascension as a “parable” up for grabs. The real Bergoglio – who does not easily fit into the liberal/conservative sorting box the play wants to use – would be aghast, and would make a much more interesting and complex character.

Woodeson’s Bergoglio does ring true in one regard: There is an anger underneath the smiling, joking cardinal, and an impatience with the way the world — including the Church — is being run.

The central conflict is maddening for a Catholic journalist – Bergoglio’s resignation. Did he offer his resignation as sign of protest against Benedict? Um, no. He did it because all bishops are required to submit their resignation at 75 (the text seems to imply that cardinal archbishops don’t need to submit their resignation from their dioceses until they are 80.) Did Benedict not accept the resignation because he didn’t wish to give a voice to this protest, or possibly because he wanted to make sure Bergoglio was in the mix to be elected his successor? Popes often don’t accept resignations from healthy archbishops.

The resignation is the raison d’être for the action of the play and drives the interactions between the two characters, and so must be excused as the “necessary fault” which allows the drama to unfold.

But it points to the underlying problem of the play.

It is obvious McCarten did his research, but it often seems it was based more on newspaper articles than books, and some quotes seemed to have been ripped from the headlines, without a careful reading of the full text. (In fact, some sections of the play’s second act seemed like the actors were reading their character’s Wikipedia biography to the audience.)

This ultimately gives us a simplistic view of the two men: Conservative vs. liberal, backward vs. forward-looking, sadly confused by the modern world vs. reluctantly bold in the face of its challenges.

McCarten has not finished with “The Pope.” He wrote a book called The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, released earlier this year. “The Pope” will also be a film– based on the book, not the play — starring Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis scheduled for release on Netflix later this year.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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