Drama of Becket's assassination, back in the cathedral

Great drama has a way of always being relevant whenever it is performed, even if, like T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, it isn’t performed very often, writes Simon Tait.

The play is, of course, about the assassination of Thomas Becket, but with undertones of the shadow of Fascism over Europe. Next year sees the 850th anniversary of the event and a small ensemble company, Scena Mundi, has the ambitious project of performing it in – if all goes well - 25 cathedrals around the United Kingdom, starting with Southwark Cathedral next month. Jasper Britton plays Becket.

Written for the Canterbury Festival in 1935, the play is Eliot’s evocation of classic Greek techniques to relate an historical event. The Chorus carries the narrative in its representation of ordinary life through the aeons, “Living and partly living”, while the action is conducted ritualistically.

Thanks to the eyewitness of a monk, Edward Grim, who was wounded but survived to write a detailed account, we know the story in surprising detail, but the new production is not presented as an historical piece – “Eliot did the research”, says the director, Cecilia Dorland,  “we're doing his play”. 

In the verse play the actual murder is almost incidental to the psychological turmoil of this eternally enigmatic man. As Henry II’s Lord Chancellor he was the second most powerful man in the realm, decadently wealthy and the only man the king could trust. To help subdue the powerful ecclesiastical princes that owned a third of England Henry had Thomas ordained one day and enthroned as archbishop the next to help him set about them. But Becket’s character seems to have changed overnight, and for eight years he was a pious pain in the royal side, mostly in exile but obstructing every attempt to wrest control of the law from the church. Until his murder 

And so it is usually played, a 20th century harnessing of ancient techniques to tell a medieval story. But Eliot could undoubtedly hear the jackboots as he wrote, and three times revised the piece before war finally came. Perhaps only metaphorically we can hear them now.

“I see it more as a political and literary work than a ritual exercise” says Dorland, Scena Mundi’s founder. “It's about motives. If you read the knights, they are politicians”.  The audience is the electorate to whom the murderers, like Marc Antony, appeal with their rhetoric.

“The knights are so obviously that, the populists of our day” Dorland says. “You see these four men come in, drunk, kill this man in cold blood, and turn round to the people and say ‘It's suicide isn’t it? he made it happen. We did it for you, for your good. And look, you're very grateful to us…’”

But this is no thinly veiled agit prop. Dorland, half French, half English, and formerly an English literature tutor at the Sorbonne and University College London who was trained in classical theatre at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, set up Scena Mundi in 2013 to explore less familiar classical texts: “Classical theatre that needs to be undressed, or peeled of its outer layers like an onion” as she puts it.  Their first production was John Lyly’s 1600 allegory Love Metamorphosis, later Jonson’s Volpone, the 15th century morality play Everyman, Shakespeare and Marlowe brought together with Sad Stories of the Death of Kings: Richard II & Edward II, Twelfth Night and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

The company almost always uses churches as venues because they are natural theatres for classical drama, just as they are natural galleries for some art and natural concert halls for some music. And, she adds, they are also much cheaper to hire than theatres. The first was St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, a great Romanesque former priory, where Scena Mundi had a residency and where it first performed Murder in the Cathedral in 2014, the only modern play the company has so far tackled.

But lessons were learned from that, and this production is completely new. The power of the chorus, Women of Canterbury, as the carrier of the wider story is acknowledged in the increasing of its size to eight, with five amateurs; there is neither an attempt to be historically authentic in costume (expensive and irrelevant), nor to be modern, despite the circumstantial feel of the Eliot lines (a distracting conceit); the knights are older, grizzled veterans, not the young thugs of before; and for Thomas she has gone outside the ensemble for the first time to use an award-winning classical actor in Jasper Britton to bring gravity and credibility to the contradictions in the character of Becket.

The tour begins on November 4 at Southwark Cathedral, the church of St Mary Overie as it was when Becket gave his last public sermon there before finally travelling to Canterbury. St Thomas’s Hospital was established nearby in his name soon after his martyrdom.  The production is also scheduled for St Mary the Virgin in Oxford and then Guildford Cathedral in November.

Dorland had carefully laid and booked plans for a 2020 tour that would take in cathedrals whose prospects as venues for this play make one’s mouth water: York, Gloucester, Lincoln, Durham, St Andrew’s, Chichester, St David’s, Salisbury, Wells.

The undoubted advantages of doing a play like Murder in the Cathedral in a cathedral with its already dramatic architecture are only slightly offset by other factors: the get-in can be extremely awkward, meaning minimal sets, and has to be done on the day of the performance around the other business of the church; the giant acoustic, great for the sung Te Deum in the last scene, can lose the spoken word from actors not used to it; cathedrals are business savvy now, so that on top of the £6,000 fee for Southwark’s four performances, for instance, there are other charges raising the expense for that first venue to around £10,000.

This will be Scena Mundi’s most ambitious project by far, whose success as a piece of theatre may take some time to be judged. When Dorland put it on five years ago, members of the audience came to congratulate her afterwards, remarking on how powerful the knights came across as being, and she knew she’d got something wrong. They had missed the blame-shifting rhetoric of the knights, and the false authority the First Knight takes on in the final lines when he instructs the audience to “disperse quietly to your homes” and not to “loiter in groups on street corners, and do nothing that may provoke any public outbreak”, like a policeman. Or a gauleiter.

“My heart gave a little lurch, because that’s not the point”, she says. “You should see through them, that they’re bullies, should see they are going to create a dictatorship on the back of what they’ve done here - something else that motivated Thomas. So this time I need to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Murder in the Cathedral by T S Eliot, presented by Scena Mundi with Jasper Britton, directed by Cecilia Dorland, is at Southwark Cathedral, November 4, 5, 12 and 13; University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, November 8 & 9; Guildford Cathedral, November 14.

This article first appeared own The London Magazine.

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