I was curious to see this production because Murder in the Cathedral, written in 1935, is a famous play which I had never seen. It has become deeply unfashionable and I now understand why. T.S. Eliot was, of course, one of the 20th Century’s finest poets (“sombre November” and “the scrubbers and sweepers of Canterbury”) but he was no playwright. This very wordy play, uncut as it is in this version, is awfully short on action however much you try to make visual use of side aisles and steps to move the cast about. And two hours straight through is hard going.
Originally performed in the Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral the play explores the events leading up to the brutal murder by four knights of Archbishop Thomas Becket at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170 at the behest of Henry II. It is written in verse and ranges through many different metrical forms. In the middle Becket (Jasper Britton) delivers a full length sermon which is, I gather, usually cut but director Cecilia Dorland, in her wisdom, leaves it intact as she does with every other word in the play.
The piece is underpinned by Eliot’s own Catholicism and interest in mediaeval doctrine and liturgy so there’s a lot of prayer and a capella singing (not very well in tune) by a group of priests and a chorus of six women of Canterbury. The candles work nicely in the ambience of Southwark Cathedral and one of the chorus is swinging a censer as the audience files in so the “smells and bells” atmosphere feels authentic. There are topical resonances too if you want to pick them up: Becket has been travelling in Europe and the faraway Pope is ultimately in charge but, we’re often reminded by the text that this is England where we do things in a certain way.
Britton is strong as Beckett enunciating every word in his mellifluous “classical voice” and making the verse sound quite conversational. He even makes the sermon feel reasonably arresting. The chorus of chanting women, though, reminded me at times of the witches in Macbeth which is entirely the wrong message.
The only point at which this show really blossoms into arresting theatre is the scene in which the four knights take it in turns to defend their actions. It’s prose and they sound like modern politicians, well, campaigning before a general election perhaps. David Keogh was particularly entertaining here.
There were problems with the sound system on press night. It was crackling occasionally and, with actors wearing radio mics, it’s disconcerting that all the sound comes clearly from speakers near the front and when you look at the actors you often can’t tell who is speaking.
A great deal of hard work has evidently gone into this show and I think there’s academic value in taking a look at the play but on balance it ticks few theatricality boxes. The production is touring to Oxford and Guildford, Surrey later this month.