“We live in darkness,” a Dominican cardinal (Malcolm Sinclair) says not long into the second act of “Luther,” adding, as if he were writing about our own troubled age, “and it only grows bigger.” That John Osborne did not live to see these calamitous times only adds an eerie resonance to the first London revival of his celebrated 1961 play, a sometimes rough slog that nonetheless mostly justifies the Royal National Theater’s faith in it. Faith is Osborne’s subject, as it was Martin Luther’s before him, and what better moment to hear the subject debated anew: When Rufus Sewell’s fierce Luther takes to the pulpit to let rip in anguished tones about the Reformation era’s “dangerous times,” you can practically feel the entire Olivier auditorium nodding in assent.
Whether that audience will give its approval so quickly to Osborne’s dramaturgy is another matter, since — for all the fire in its belly — “Luther” doesn’t always avoid the traps that tend to beset this genre of play. At times, you may suppress a chuckle at the clumsiness of the exchanges. No sooner has Hans (a crab-like Geoffrey Hutchings), Luther’s miner father, spoken to his zealous son about “this chap Erasmus” — the reference is seconded by a fellow monk named Brother Weinand (Pip Donaghy) — before Luther snaps, “I know who he is; I don’t need you to tell me.”
Later, the sweep of history (the Peasants’ Revolt, specifically) gets the better of Osborne and his otherwise able director, Peter Gill, who last paired with this dramatist on an underrated Royal Shakespeare Co. staging of “A Patriot for Me.” Here, a lengthy sequence of badly spotlit friezes of terror and fury marks the low point of a production that for the most part dignifies one of history’s most potent internal debates. And when it comes to actually animating a rhetoric-heavy text, Gill does just fine, moving patterns of black-clad men across Alison Chitty’s imposing set in some beautiful processionals.
“Luther’s” primary tussle is the one Luther must wage within, as a man beset by “mortifications” (in the words of the Augustinian monk von Staupitz, eloquently played by an elegiac Timothy West) who regards himself as “a ripe stool in the world’s straining anus.” That’s not the most appealing image now available on a London stage, but it is of a piece with the dramatist who gave us “Look Back in Anger,” with Luther as a Jimmy Porter of the cloth busily letting rip at the trappings of religiosity (notions of the Pope and Purgatory among them) displacing the substance of belief.
Osborne clearly was wary of causing potential weariness, which finds an antidote on this occasion in the arrival down the center aisle of an enormous Richard Griffiths — the actor more than ever resembles a galleon in full sail — playing Johann Tetzel, the corrupt Dominican who has come to sell indulgences (and stir the audience to comic life). The apple-cheeked Griffiths aside, there are few chuckles to be had from a story of religious fervor that strikes odd echoes with the fundamentalism around us today, not least a remark with regard to God: “If He butchers us, He makes us live.”
His career-making perf in “Arcadia” notwithstanding, so contemporary a player as Sewell probably isn’t the first actor one might think of to inherit a role that marked an early career triumph for Albert Finney. And Finney, I would imagine, probably extracted greater wit from the part. Instead, Sewell charges headlong if a shade humorlessly at the role, a monastic tonsure atop his head, and navigates well the dense set pieces, a painful retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story included.
By play’s end, Osborne attempts not terribly convincingly to bring a long evening full circle by reviving the ancillary theme of fathers and sons with which he began, only to find himself coopted by Luther’s war against the spiritual father that is God. (All Luther feels, he tells us, is “God’s hatred” — and blocked bowels.) That’s a lot for modern-day audiences to digest, and yet “Luther” knows when to cut to the quick. “We owe so much to you,” Staupitz says in a final address that stops well short of hagiography. For then, in a request further stilling a commendably attentive house, he asks of Luther something of lasting import. “The world’s changed,” he remarks. “All I beg of you is not to be too violent.”