Kicking off the National Youth Theatre’s autumn season with style, Pope Joan is the debut play by Louise Brealey about the famed cross-dressing pope. Known, perhaps, for her television role in Sherlock, it is a highly ambitious play that attempts a timelessness many writers would struggle with. Thematically, the piece succeeds, though there are weaknesses in the writing in some places.
Following the famous and controversial figure of Pope John/Joan, the first and only female pontiff, there could not be a more perfect setting for the piece aesthetically than Sir Christopher Wren’s glorious St James’ Church in Piccadilly. While sitting in the vast, rich, incense-filled space it is not difficult to imagine yourself in the churches of Rome. Atmospherically lit by Richard Howell, the church becomes a shadowy place of vicious politics and violent secrets, populated by a large ensemble of priests and monks whispering and gossiping in corners.
The outline of the story is known by many; the ambitious and ahead-of-her-time Joan believes in her apparently radical interpretation of Christ’s teachings and places Mary Magdalene at the core of her beliefs. She believes that Christ did not treat women as inferior or as outsiders, but as integral to a successful religious community. She decides, in her youth, to don male clothes to continue her learning in a monastery, and ends up at the head of the Catholic Church. Her decisions divide the cardinals, and eventually her rivals engineer her downfall – almost aided and abetted by what Joan calls her own “treacherous” female body.
There are some huge gaps. How, for instance, does she go from being a poor boy learning in a monastery to the head of the Church? This crucial development is rather frustratingly missing. While her family life is charmingly touched upon at the opening, and Sarah Miele gives a strong performance as the younger Joan, the grief and loss Joan feels for her family is too loosely referred to and so the emotional punch from this is lost. That said, playwright Louise Brealey shows great potential.
While the space is aesthetically beautiful, practically it comes with many difficulties and the overly wordy dialogue is occasionally sacrificed to aesthetic effect. The majority of the cast do well to be heard in what is a challenging, echoing space acoustically.
As Pope Joan, Sophie Crawford gives a brave and powerful performance. At times delivering commanding addresses to the full congregation, at times seen in her most painful and intimate moments, Crawford is unflinching in the role. She impressively portrays the degradation into desperation as Joan begins to lose grip. It is a shame that there are times where it feels though the demands of the problematic space mean that subtleties are lost, because there is no doubt that Crawford is a young actress with huge potential.
Robert Willoughby also impresses as her rival, Cardinal Anastasius. He floats around the stage in a blood-red gown demanding the respect of those around him. There is the perfect balance of danger, ambition and power in Willoughby’s performance. Accompanying the production is a strong live band and some great vocalists, most notably Peter Wight.
The ensemble is not entirely consistent, with a few performances that would benefit from more development, but the National Youth Theatre should be and is about the learning process for the participants. Assessed on that criteria, this production cannot fail to be a valuable experience for everyone involved.
Energetic and bold, the production is undoubtedly affecting. There are some rather large brush-strokes at times, meaning the show is lacking in an attention to detail that would make it rather spectacular. As it is, Paul Hart’s moody and stylish production is an imperfect beauty with an important message. For the religious, the agnostic and the atheistic among us, Pope Joan is worth seeing if only for the exciting young up-and-coming cast.
Pope Joan is playing at St James’ Church, Piccadilly until 15 Sept. For more information and tickets, see the National Youth Theatre website.