Gavin Martin"Hip Priest for Pope of Pop"

New Musical Express, December 13, 1986, p. 5


WHAT CAUSED the death of Luciani Albino, Pope John Paul 1, after only 33 days on the papal throne in 1978?

Was he really a victim of The Vatican's inner sanctum, the dreaded P2 Masonic lodge, worried that the self styled "smiling pope" was was about to rid the church of its excess wealth and corruption? Did the strict Jesuit brethren, fearing that Luciani was about to give the OK to contraception, spike his cocoa with digitalis? Why was there never a post-mortem or a death certificate issued? And how does it all tie up with Italian banker Calvi, found swinging from a Waterloo underpass, and the Mafia's money laundering system?

All these and many more questions will not necessarily be answered in Hey Luciani, the first play from Mark E Smith, already proven to be one of Britain's sharpest and funniest writers with The Fall, and now embarking on a new format and presentation. Some three months in preparation, and being revised and rewritten right up to its opening week, Hey Luciani is initially scheduled for a two-week run at London's Riverside studios in Hammersmith.

"I got interested in Luciani after reading David Yallop's book 'In God's Name' a while ago. 'Hey Luciani', the single, was written for the 'Bend Sinister' LP and we thought it would be a good idea to do a full-scale Fall project a round it, the subject matter appealed to our sense of humour.

"The first thought was to do it as the book but I just wrote what I wanted to write, the papal characters are in no way factual, it's not like they really were. I've taken liberties all over the place and the characters stimulated me onto other things," explains Smith. From fragments of rumour and description Hey Luciani would appear to be an anti-polemical piece of dramatic intrigue, a musical thriller, a comedic conspiracy theory; all fertile settings for Smith's convoluted plotlines and maverick genius. Reluctance to stick to tried and trusted 'fact' is only proper in the circumstances the possibilities as inherent in business scandals are limitless and fantastic. Just like a Fall song, in fact.

"The play is a simulation of the conspiracy theory in the book, the middle bit splits up other things - South America and Britain, for instance. No way is it a factual indictment of Catholicism or even The Vatican. People think when they hear it's about the pope that it must either be a 'rock musical' or anti-religious statement or something. Which is a sad reflection on the way the theatre is viewed in this country. I chose the setting because the characters appealed to me and hopefully it makes good drama."

The play lasts about 100 minutes and features new Fall music themes for each character, 'Have Found Boorman' (for the all-girl Israeli commando group who appear as a mysterious but vital connection in the thickening plot), 'Sleep Debt Snatches' which has a reggae atmosphere, a machine heart and spine cracking drumbeat, and 'Informant' which, fittingly in view of posthumous revelation of the cheeseburger being a narc is "the Elvis Presley type number". Apart from The Fall, there's Trevor Stewart as The Pope, Lucy Burgess as the ballet dancer and Pope's right hand girl, Michael Clark has a brief role and Leigh Bowery, star of the excellent Smith-directed video for 'Mr Pharmacist', is head of accounts at The Vatican. Why a play not a TV programme or video film for all this, Mark?

"I wanted to do something where the words could be heard on their own, there's a lot of bits where there's just going to be words on their own. I'm not in it a lot myself, I do a few numbers and the rest of the time is just narration and direction of others. It's more like a film than a play because it's been very severely edited. The thing I still have to get organised is getting people on and off stage. I've got one scene that is ten seconds and the longest scene is a minute and a half, certain people find that hard going, but I enjoy that. It keeps you on your toes."

A week before the play Mark completely rewrote the third act, wasn't that a mite disconcerting for all the others?

"Not really because before it had been a bit disconnected, they were saying, we can see what you're trying to do but it needs something else. With the new third act it all fits, if you're sharp enough there's a real conspiracy to follow. There's demonic possession, Italian fascists, ex-Nazis, a Scottish communist..."

So it's not been the haphazard rush job that rumour has made out?

"That's the impression I wanted to give. It's fucking great actually, dynamic." Does it compare with anything?

"It's like a cross between The Prisoner and Shakespeare. There's even pieces that rhyme and stuff, quite surprising actually. It was our own idea, we financed it and we're not going to make any money off it but it's a good little thing to do, alleviates the tedium."