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Review of Pope Joan: National Youth Theatre

Pope JoanThe leadership of the Church of England is preparing to make yet another attempt to persuade members of its governing body, the General Synod, that women bishops are a good idea. Every one of the 400-plus synod members, along with all interested in feminism, religion and the fundamentalist exercise of medieval-style misogyny, should go and see Pope Joan, the new play from the National Youth Theatre. Significantly, it is showing at St James’s Piccadilly courtesy of the woman priest there, Canon Lucy Winkett, tipped to be one of the first woman bishops in the established church.

As actor and playwright Louise Brealey – she is currently starring in Sherlock – says in the programme notes, whether Pope Joan actually existed is not really important. “It matters that so many people wanted her to exist. Having read everything there is to read about her, I want her to have existed too. She sounds amazing.”

Although many if not most serious scholars regard Pope Joan as a myth, there are more than 500 “primary” sources testifying that she did exist.

Many of these, such as the Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum, are from the 13th century, reporting the existence of a female Pope disguised as a man in the second half of the ninth century.  Martin of Opava wrote that she was known as Pope John.

“John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the Papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and, afterward in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city; and she was chosen for Pope. While Pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran.” It is certainly true that this lane, once named Via Sacra, was rechristened the “shunned street” and avoided by all future Popes, but whether that is because a female Pope gave birth in it, or merely because a myth grew in credibility, is impossible to say.

Pope Joan, directed by Paul Hart, stars Cambridge graduate and choral scholar Sophie Crawford, whose CV already demonstrates an impressive foundation in classical theatre. She has toured Europe in a production of The Taming of the Shrew and in an earlier NYT production she performed in a bilingual version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She also performed in the 2012 Marlowe Showcase.  She could have been born for this part, which is intense and demanding, and gives it everything, right to the bloody denouement. She makes the play, which perhaps could have been enlivened here and there with some humour, extremely gripping in spite of the 90 minutes without an interval on bottom-numbing pews. It says something about the church then and now that a woman could manage to become Pope then, but even a woman still cannot get rid of wooden pews now. Not that I know for certain that Canon Winkett would want to do that, just that I cannot imagine anyone, woman or man, surviving 90 minutes on those pews without wanting rid.

All I can gainsay for now is that the play is worth the pain. Robert Willoughby stands out as the opportunist Cardinal Anastasius in a cast dominated by young men. The setting in this Christopher Wren church could not be more apt, with the young and older Pope Joan mirroring at different times the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross in the stained glass behind them. A little more period music would have been good but perhaps the Chaucerian roughness, with even a roughed up Joan being carried bare-breasted down the aisle, was not deemed to lend itself to traditional chant. We also see Joan compromised by the male world she has entered into and, literally, embraced as both woman and man. She orders a poor and probably innocent man to have his skin lacerated with pitch poured into his wounds before quartering. Even the men around her look shocked and perhaps, the play seems to speculate, she might have survived as Pope had she not been so cruel. It is political cruelty to her nemesis, Ánastasius, that is in the end her undoing as much as her pregnancy. If she had not made so enemies as a “male” Pope, might she have found a friend who could have helped her survive?

For all women trying to make their way and survive in secular and religious worlds where stained glass ceilings remain above as well as behind the action, there is much in this production to provoke reflection. Pope Joan, as she died, or according to some legends lived in penitence and saw her son become a bishop, must have wondered throughout her life if the deception was worth it. I loved seeing this, hearing Brealey’s powerful script and watching the equally-powerful interpretation by Crawford. I particularly loved the privilege of seeing the young talent of the National Youth Theatre out in such strength, and look forward to seeing these gifted actors on stage, television and cinema screen in years to come.

Review by Ruth Gledhill @ruthiegledhill


Tuesday 10th September 2013


  • Ruth Gledhill

    Ruth Gledhill, on Twitter @ruthiegledhill, contributes regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Ruth Gledhill has worked on The Times from 1987 to 2014. Before that she was a news reporter and feature writer on The Daily Mail. She wrote her first theatre review, Tennessee Williams 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof', while serving indentures at The Birmingham Post & Mail. After leaving the Midlands in 1984 she decided to concentrate on news. She is delighted to be able to revive her love of writing about the stage as a critic for London Theatre. Public profile http://journalisted.com/ruth-gledhill

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