Taking you back to 33 days in 1978

  • April 19, 2014

Thirty-three days into his papacy, Pope John Paul I was found dead. His sudden death in 1978 plunged Catholics and other Christians into what British actor David Suchet calls “absolute despair” and set the stage, literally, for the theatrical production of The Last Confession.

The Last Confession stars Suchet, famous for his televised role as Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. But Suchet says audiences will find a much different character than the Belgian sleuth when he dons red robes to play Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, a Vatican insider and friend to the late pontiff who, in this fictional account of the final days of John Paul I, confesses his role in the death.

“It’s a constant tête-à-tête with the confessor as he tries to explain his doubts, his sins,” said Suchet. “His greatest sin was the betrayal of his best friend.”

John Paul I was pope from just Aug. 26 to Sept. 28, 1978. He exuded warmth, compassion and humility, which made him a popular figure, not unlike Pope Francis. But his papacy ended when he died in his bed at age 65 from what a Vatican doctor ruled was a heart attack. In keeping with Vatican protocol, no autopsy was performed and, without any hard evidence to contradict them, conspiracy theorists have long imagined the possibility that Pope John Paul was the victim of foul play.

In The Last Confession Benelli takes audiences back to 1978 in a fictional story based on historical characters from the days before and after the election of Pope John Paul I.

Suchet said he researched Church history to prepare for the role of Benelli. He believes John Paul’s papacy was “a natural outcome of the Second Vatican Council,” when the Church “decided to be more liberal.”

“He came in as the great liberal pope,” Suchet said. It was a time when “a very severe split” had developed between the traditionalists and reformers in the Church so, for John Paul I, “it was not an easy transition.”

It is this perceived tension in the Church that forms the backdrop for the play.

In many ways, the play’s depiction of the late pontiff will remind theatre goers of Pope Francis, Suchet says.

“Every single member of the audience will ally John Paul I with Pope Francis,” said Suchet. Pope Francis “has been called the Pope of the people, and John Paul I was called the people’s Pope. Pope Francis is called a Pope similar to a parish priest... In our play, I say a reporter said it best: it’s as though a parish had lost its priest.”

The similarity is accidental, he said, but “the timing of this play is very apt.”

Aside from the circumstances and investigation of John Paul I’s death, Suchet hopes audiences will focus on the play’s examination of faith in God and Jesus, and what faith means to Benelli, who has committed his life to his beliefs.

When Suchet played the character in a 2007 production, he received “extraordinary letters from Jews, from Catholics, from Protestants, from Eastern Orthodox saying that they were really interested and taken by the journey of Benelli searching for and trying to find faith within disaster,” said Suchet, who turns 68 next month.

“In my life as a Christian, I have constantly struggled, as he has, to find God. Any Christian who has entered that ring of struggle will know that sometimes you feel you have and sometimes you feel you haven’t and sometimes it can be very lonely.

“I think a Christian’s life is a very tenuous one. You have great faith, you do believe, but somehow there are these dark nights of the soul.”

The Last Confession will be in Toronto for six weeks beginning April 19. For more information, visit www.mirvish.com.

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