Vatican drag

THEATRE : Hadrian VII Chichester
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The Independent Culture
It's not that long since we last saw Derek Jacobi in vestments. On that occasion, he was playing Thomas Becket, one of sainthood's more equivocal martyrs. Now, in Hadrian VII, he's clambered back into canonicals to impersonate an even dodgier case: a man who was elevated to the papacy and martyrdom only in his own overwrought imaginings. Thought of as a sort of Pope-mobile, an unashamed vehicle for Jacobi, who is Chichester's new artistic director, the evening has its definite pleasures. Thought of as a dramatic offering about the nature of compensatory delusions, the evening is a somewhat hollow charade, for Peter Luke's play keeps ducking the issues its format raises.

Luke's Hadrian VII is based on Frederick Rolfe's eccentric autobiographical novel of 1904, a wish-fulfilling fantasy wherein a rejected would-be priest and writer finds himself elected Pope. The potentially interesting difference is that Luke makes no bones about the identity of the protagonist and brings in material from Rolfe's bizarre real-life career of serendipitous self- deception ("Baron Corvo" was one of the titles he assumed) and paranoid embattlement.

Jacobi is superb within the limits of the play. All affronted dignity in a shapeless, hole-ridden cardigan, he shows you at first a man who has been reduced to bedsitter poverty, lovelessness and twitchy self-obsession by the Church's blocking of his fierce vocation to the priesthood.

What follows is a case of a great performance in search of a decent play. Where you might have thought it would have given the proceedings an astringent edge of irony, Luke's device of substituting Rolfe, the author, for Rose, his thinly disguised hero, is used as a way of amplifying rather than undercutting the endemic self-pity. This is at its most breathtaking when Jacobi's Rolfe, now Pope, is supposed to discover human love on meeting Paul Connolly's Rose, a youthful version of his own misfit self, all screwed- up intensity and misunderstood yearning, in the English college in Rome. A genuine leap of altruistic empathy on the Pope's part? Only if you'd include under that heading Narcissus fancying his reflection in the pool.

Luke allows the hero to have it every which way. His enemies are either blaggards like the blackmailing Belfast bigot Sant (Wesley Murphy) or improbably susceptible to tearjerking rhetoric like John Ravident's huffily gesticulating cardinal.

With the Vatican scenes played before a great golden facade, Terry Hands' production is simply and strikingly staged, even though to Rolfe's exorbitant tastes in these matters it might seem a trifle low church. Jacobi's performance gives you the odd valuable hint that the Pope's decision to renounce temporal power is prompted as much by a desire for revenge on the clergy as by luxury-eschewing spirituality. It's not his fault that such ambiguities aren't more intricately explored in the text. As a foretaste of the new regime at Chichester, they could have chosen less bland fare than this, but to Jacobi the actor, mitres off.

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Paul Taylor