Death has a hundred hands. And walks by a thousand ways.
“Suicide by Cop” is a twenty-first century concept drip-fed to us through the news and tv and film so its interesting to discover, here in T.S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece, that we have Martyrdom by Knight. Becket knew he was going to die, he wanted to die, he brought death to his door, unbarred it, and gave himself up as a sacrifice to honour – the “honour of God” as Jean Anouilh (Becket, 1959) was later to describe it – so that he could become the martyr that he thought the country, the times, needed.
Eliot composed his seminal verse drama in 1935 whilst gathering storms were beginning to buffet and deconstruct the old order and the long-established conventional way of life, and the ominous command at the end of the play by the First Knight that we – the “congregation” – should “disperse quietly to our homes” and “not loiter in groups on street corners” was as sinister as much back then Britain in 1170 as in Europe in 1935 and as, perhaps, today in Hong Kong.
The power of the state always trumps the power of God, it seems, and Becket saw it as his role, his calling, to highlight this and attempt to redress the balance.
Here Becket is played, commandingly, by Jasper Britton. This is an abrasive Becket, an acerbic Becket, not really a Becket for all seasons but a Becket who is arrogant in tooth and claw, a soldier of God rather than a priest – in fact God’s Champion jousting to the death in the King’s lists. Britton doesn’t take any prisoners and although I fully appreciate that the cavernous, echoey pillared arches of Southwark Cathedral are not necessarily conducive to normal theatrical performance there is room, I feel, for just a little more subtlety in expression, gesture and timbre. We take on board Becket’s singular determination and doctrinaire fanaticism (a word he uses himself) but our lack of empathy with the character leaves us feeling a little empty.
The production is blessed with a wonderful chorus of six female voices (Clare Brice, Anna Buckland, Faye Maughan, Stephanie Ward, Fifi Russell, Bronwen Cunliffe) who either singly, or in lyrical unison, confer on Eliot’s work a magical sacred backdrop of spiritual resonance and mystic uplift. The chorus permeates the cathedral coming at the audience from all sides throughout the show before settling together each time on the alter steps, touching our hearts so that we glow with inner peace.
The Knights – Rupert Bates, Pip Brignall, David Keogh, David Shelley (who double as the Tempters) are rough-edged, earthy, no-nonsense Trump supporters (one would imagine) who see all things in black-and-white and lack Becket’s intelligence and wisdom, only fixing on what they perceive to be their King’s command and the defence of his honour – not God’s. Their justification speeches, after completing their assassin’s mission, are humorous and basic and sound like they are pitching for seats in our upcoming general election. There will be such people elected again this time (no names, no pack drill) but I’m not sure we are going to get anyone as principled as Thomas Becket.
Murder in the Cathedral is directed by Cecilia Dorland who clearly has a great eye for the pageantry of the epic show. The use of the voluminous space is exemplary and her ability to draw the audience into the text in what must be the most trying circumstances is truly impressive. She is well served by what is clearly a committed and passionate cast as well as by Jean-Philippe Martinez’s musical compositions and arrangements. Lighting is always an extra challenge in such a venue as this and Andrew Ellis’s design makes full use of the architectural possibilities that the cathedral offers as well as ensuring that the narrative is carefully framed.
It is quite something to sit in a (relatively) warm cathedral and listen to the words of one of our greatest twentieth century poets performed with feeling and understanding. The play is about guilt and the presumption of guilt by Becket himself: the poetry is in the presumption; the drama is in the inevitability.
After Southwark the show moves to Oxford and Guildford: if you get the chance to see the play performed in the surroundings it was written for – originally Canterbury Cathedral of course, but any church or cathedral – then do take the opportunity.
Review by Peter Yates
Scena Mundi’s new staging in stunning cathedral settings, coincides with the 850th anniversary of the real murder of Thomas Becket and immerses audiences in the pageant of suspense, murder and passion.
Murder in the Cathedral is the ultimate struggle of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, an outspoken and courageous priest, silenced for daring to speak out against the king. Witness the assassination of Becket in a beautiful, immersive setting and feel his demons, the darkness and sense of doom ushered in by an iron-fisted monarch.
T.S. Eliot, one of the twentieth century’s most innovative poets, was fascinated by this martyr, gruesomely murdered for opposing the tyrannical rule of Henry II. Written in 1935, as Fascism rose in Europe, this poetic take on Becket’s death has contemporary echoes and warnings for our time.
JASPER BRITTON plays Thomas Becket.
The rest of the cast includes Rupert Bates, Pip Brignall, Jake Dove, James Keningale, David Keogh and David Shelley. There will also be a chorus of the Women of Canterbury.
The director of Scena Mundi Theatre and the play is Cecilia Dorland. The producer is Scott Weddell for Scena Mundi. The creative team includes Ilona Dearden as designer, Alex Marshall as lighting designer, Jean-Philippe Martinez as sound and music director, Clare Brice as voice/chorus leader, Faye Maughan as movement/chorus leader and Tom Wakeley as singing director.
Brigid Panet is text consultant and Dr. Charles Moseley is literary and historical consultant.
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, interval TBC
Age suitability: 12+