Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” These words, attributed to Henry II, may not be heard in the T. S. Eliot play, but they are ultimately what lead to the Murder in the Cathedral. On 29 December 1170, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was killed by four knights who believed they were acting upon the king’s orders; Becket had become a thorn in Henry II’s side, excommunicating bishops & barons who had supported the king during Becket’s exile and threatening to do the same to the king himself.

The play begins just prior to Becket’s return to Canterbury from his exile in France, the women and the priests of the city considering what effect this might have – and whether he should turn back and live out his days in France instead. Once he arrives he faces a series of interactions that test his resolve over staying, before leaping to his Christmas Day mass. A few days later a group of knights arrive on “urgent business” – the priests make every attempt to persuade Becket to lock himself away for his own protection, however he feels it would be wrong to bar the cathedral doors, and so allows his murderers to freely enter the building. Following his death, the knights plead their case (suggesting the Archbishop effectively committed suicide), the priests pontificate over events, and the women of Canterbury beg for collective forgiveness.

T. S. Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral in 1935; the Nazis were in power in Germany and the far right were taking hold, and Hitler had ensured many of his domestic enemies had been murdered to strengthen his position as Chancellor – you can see why someone like Becket was on Eliot’s mind. Parallels like this also make uncovering the play now quite understandable, and staging it in various historic cathedrals makes this all the more potent.

Scena Mundi have returned to bring this play to Southwark, Oxford and Guildford Cathedrals over the course of the next couple of weeks, with plans to tour further in 2020.

Whilst an excellent idea in theory, in reality the experience didn’t quite live up to expectations. Having seen Antic Disposition’s Henry V at Southwark Cathedral a couple of years ago I fully anticipated some kind of traverse setup down the aisle (or potentially a bit thrust so as to include the altar), however it is being staged front on – naturally the seating is all on one level and,  it being a cathedral, there are a lot of rows. Back in row S, most of the time I was lucky if i could see a floating head, sadly. True, there doesn’t seem to be much in the play to see, but it’s not enjoyable to constantly stare at the back of people’s heads; I kept finding myself gazing up at the impressive architecture for the sake of variety, losing track of what was being said in the process.

It was also unbearably cold (thanks, in part, to the door being left open) which increased concentration difficulties towards the very drawn-out end – those of us who were there punctually had an extra 10-minute wait while stragglers casually strolled in, adding to the discomfort. My top tip is to bring several layers with you so you can keep topping yourself up throughout the performance.

My big worry beforehand had been the echo (this is where Henry V had fallen down), as cathedrals aren’t necessarily great for this kind of thing. The sensible decision to use microphones has been taken, and the speakers were placed perfectly to negate any kind of echo and so allow everyone in the building to hear everything. That was one source of solace, as I could at least try to keep up with the play thanks to this.

Given that I couldn’t see, I don’t think it would be fair of me to make too many comments on individual performances, though Jasper Britton was particularly impressive as Becket took his Christmas service, holding the attention of an entire cathedral for a significant amount off time.

The play doesn’t really help itself, being overly wordy and inconsistently flirting with rhyming couplets. I’ll be completely honest: I didn’t always know what was happening and who some of the characters even were. Improved surroundings might have helped a bit, but it does seem to me that Eliot assumed his audiences would have the same knowledge and understanding of medieval history as him – the frequent interjections from the chorus didn’t really help, and it felt like he had three stabs at an ending before settling on the weakest one. Staging Murder in the Cathedral in this way is an ambitious move, which I’m sure will delight fans of Eliot’s work – it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Murder in the Cathedral
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

My verdict? An ambitious production of a play that is too wordy for its own good – and not particularly easy to follow.

Rating: 3*

Murder in the Cathedral runs until 14 November 2019 – it is on tour at Oxford Cathedral (8-9 November), Southwark Cathedral (4-5 & 12-13 November) and Guildford Cathedral (14 November). Tickets are available online or on the door.

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