IT TAKES extreme courage or foolishness — for a contemporary playwright to attempt to unravel the enigma of Sainthood. Julian Mitchell, in his new play Francis, displays equal measures of both qualities.
The tale of a bawdy delinquent turned mystic, who converses with the birds and the beasts, and who imposes on himself a regime (based on a Godgiven rule) of asthetic rigour, is likely to stretch the credulity of an average modern theatre audience.
And it says much for the courage of Mr Mitchell that he does not skirt around the miraculous events attributed to the Saint, who does speak to the birds , and is shown hearing the stigmata.
But where the play moves from simplicity to mere naivity is when the playwright attempts to impose on the extraordinary life of' Sr Francis of Assisi, played with ,T.-'iginous brilliance by the young actor Kenneth Branagh, the thesis that bureaucracy erodes the individual spirit.
St Francis's early band of followers, seen praising the Lord like charismatics, arc men prepared to adhere rigidly to the Rule, But as the popularity of the new Order sweeps through medieval Italy, swelling the numbers to unmanageable proportions, some of the Franciscan friars feel the need for material aids — one for a psalter, another for Chapter house.
Slowly St Francis loses the will to control the beast he has created, and, gradually going blind, he retreats into the hills to live out the Rule.
His dying request is to be left naked, so that he may leave the world in total poverty. But when the full paraphenalia of the Church descends onto the stage, in the form of a vast procession of Cardinals to the blare of trumpets, who cover St Francis's body in silk vestments, his message seems to have been thwarted.
The final image, however, of a discarded habit, is a powerful piece of dramatic realisation. For alt its faults, this is a challenging play. See it.