Royal National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 5 October, 2001

**** Surprisingly impassioned portrait of the tortured theologian

You don't really expect that old curmudgeon John Osborne to show much of a heart, still less to show it in a subject like this, but he does.

"It missed the spiritual side," remarked a lady behind me after the curtain call. This is true only if you ignore the human spirit which is what Osborne's play is principally about: it is not a play about God, but about man's relationship specifically, one man's relationship with ideas of God. When that one man is Martin Luther, the 16th-century father of Protestanism, there will be a certain amount of inner torment as well as church politicking. What Osborne finds particularly in a father/son exchange in the first half, and at the end after Luther's excommunication is a deeply affecting vein of individual emotion which is at once related to and separate from the theology.

Peter Gill's production works through juxtaposing this passionate humanity with church pomp and ritual. As a priest selling indulgences, Richard Griffiths almost steals the show by addressing the audience in the style of Frankie Howerd. Timothy West is solid and dignified as Luther's mentor, but all depends on the actor in the title role. Rufus Sewell succeeds in parlaying his usual smouldering passion into the religious sphere. His Luther, like Osborne's, is fierily human.

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Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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