Cadaver Synod tells the story of the posthumous trial of Pope Formosus, who reigned in Rome from 891 to 896 AD – and who was ignominiously dug up nine months after his death, to be put on trial for perjury by Stephen VI, his successor’s successor. The production (Robin Osman director, Reality Funds Theatre) begins right in the thick of things, opening on a conversation between Stephen and Ageltrude, Queen of Italy (played with a self-assured arrogance by Andrea Linhova, who is utterly convincing in the role) – where the idea for the synod is hit upon.
The relatively dark and intimate set, coupled with appropriately flowery dialogue on the part of the pontiffs and aristocrats, gives a strong sense of the cloak-and-dagger – despite an absence of both cloaks and daggers from the production. This feeling of the baroque is balanced nicely by a tongue-in-cheek dark humour that frequently had me hooting with laughter. This type of dark comedy is where writer Ben Blow really shines: where another playwright might have been tempted to take such esoteric subject matter at face value, Blow manages to find the absurd in an elaborate kangaroo court that happened over a thousand years ago – and what’s more, convey it to the audience in just a few scenes. This is not always entirely successful: there were a few moments where details of papal law or theological argumentation went over my head, and in these moments it might have been best to do away with the details.
But I was always more than happy to simply go along for the ride, enjoying the political intrigue, eclectic but oddly appropriate pastiche costumes, and gallows humour. I especially enjoyed this humour in the persons of the Kaufmans, a pair of hapless embalmers hired to gussy up the corpse for trial, played with great chemistry by Chris Allen and Hillary Davies.
Never dry, the production also engages with relevant themes of anti-authoritarianism, legacy and human vanity – and Pope Stephen’s (Alastair William Duncan) slow descent into madness is morbidly compelling to watch. Overall, Cadaver Synod is fast-paced, darkly humorous and above all interesting. Reality Funds Theatre company consistently refuse to cater to any tastes that could be called mainstream. If you’re looking for a production that will make obscure historical ephemera accessible and even hilarious, look no further than RFT.