Performing a play in a cathedral about an archbishop assassinated in a cathedral might sound like a match made in heaven. In reality, the pairing is not without its problems, as Scena Mundi Theatre Company no doubt appreciates following their opening in Southwark of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
Part penance part joy.
Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, although he spent most of that time in France, where he lived in self-imposed exile avoiding the wrath of Henry II. Becket had previously been the King’s loyal and successful chancellor. Henry imagined that by uniting the great office of state in the same person as the country’s senior prelate he could further enhance his temporal power and exercise greater ecclesiastical control. He didn’t bargain on the Cheapside priest’s devotion to his new spiritual calling, however. Becket resigned the chancellorship and embarked upon a defence of the Church’s independence from secular rule, opening up a rift that widened to include the King of France, the Pope and the bishops and nobility of England. It did not close until Becket lay at the entrance to the quire of Canterbury Cathedral, his brains splattered across the floor.
It was in the Priory of St. Mary Overie, now Southwark Cathedral, however, that he preached what was to be his last sermon. Jasper Britton’s delivery of that Christmas Day homily is one of the highlights of this production, that tours other cathedrals in the next year, commemorating the 850th anniversary in 2020 of Becket’s death. Britton speaks with undoubted authority, pious dignity and theological certainty. The register and projection of his voice and the clarity of his speech overcome the problems of the building’s acoustics, adopting a pace of delivery that accommodates the reverberation. Others fare less well, especially among some of the more softly spoken men and the higher pitched chorus of women.
Elliot’s poetry requires close attention to fully appreciate its verse structure and often complex imagery and in this case the debate around remote issues. An audience seated in unraked chairs in the nave, often straining to see the distant action in the chancel is not in the best position to do that and much tends to be lost. Not so with the prose passages declaimed by the assassins once they have committed the murder. In turn they justify the deed pointing out its political necessity in a style that seems only too familiar today and that draws many a wry smile.
Cecilia Dorland has made a valiant attempt to stage this play in a setting that is full of theatrical difficulties yet could not be more suited to its subject. The two create a production that’s part penance and part joy as the somewhat recondite work unfolds.