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Pope Joan - Review * 04 September 2013

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A new version of a near mythic tale, Pope Joan marks the playwriting debut of Louise Brealey, best known to Sherlock fans as Molly Hooper. The play tells the story of Joan, a legendary female Pope originating in the Middle Ages. To exist in this position of religious power, Joan disguised herself as a man, but eventually became undone when faced with questions of the heart and biology in a male dominated world.

Louise's assured script weaves its way through the numerous contradictions of this incredible story, where the church places the role of women in an incredibly negative light all while being ruled by a woman of incredible strength. That strength of course gives Joan a hubristic nature though, the very fact she has risen to the position of head of the church placing her in eventual mortal, and indeed moral, danger from those she has surrounded herself with. The play is laden with visual metaphor from the beginning, where Joan appears and binds her breasts to disguise her womanhood. Disguise and repression runs deep throughout, both physically and emotionally, and comes to a head when the fevered Pope literally unravels at the midpoint where the play turns more into a thriller, with the threat of discovery becoming an inexorable and unavoidable outcome.

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The role of Joan is shared by Sophie Crawford (as the elder) and Sarah Miele (as the younger), both delivering impassioned, emotional performances. Crawford in particular is able to bury this warmer heart under a flinty exterior, the pressures of her role meaning a version of her true nature only becomes visible to those she chooses to take into her closest confidence - with possibly risky, dangerous consequences. And among the excellent ensemble cast of the National Youth Theatre, Robert Willoughby makes an incredibly strong impression as Cardinal Anastasius, effectively the Iago of the piece, all buried rage immaculately dressed in slightly effeminate mannerisms, a master manipulator determined to rise to the top regardless of the methods.

Mention also has to be made of the incredible staging of the play, the setting of St James' Church not just being suitably apt visually but hugely evocative. The entire interior of the church is used, with the cast performing not just upon the tilted crucifix that forms the stage but also throughout the knave and up into the upper level - if you are seated at the front, be prepared to turn around to fully take everything in! Light, music and choreography also play a large role, the acoustics of the space delivering an ethereal and uplifting edge to proceedings that become infused with incense.    

As you would expect, this is not a story that ends happily. Though toned down from some versions of the tale, the conclusion is still dark and brutal, and reflective of the attitudes of the time. To be in a church and witness this ending is surprising and unnerving, and exactly the point. Pope Joan is a challenging playwriting debut from the multi-talented Louise Brealey, the play an open-ended interpretation of willing repression in the face of divine calling and belief that leaves no easy answers by the close.

Running until September 15 2013, Pope Joan performs at St James's Church, Piccadilly. To book tickets, head to the National Youth Theatre website.

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Actor Robert Willoughby (Anastasius) with Louise Brealey after the Press Night for Pope Joan.
Image © Ambra Vernuccio via Flickr. See the full gallery of Press Night photographs.

 

 

 
 
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