Last night I was invited to a production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral at the twelfth century church, St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, London. For those of you who are unacquainted with the play, T.S. Eliot dramatised Becket’s murder for the stage and it was first performed in 1935. His play is based on the account of Edward Grim, the clerk who attempted to protect Becket from his attackers, and who also witnessed Becket’s assassination. The play encompasses the days leading up to Becket’s murder by King Henry II’s four knights, Reginald Fitzurse, Hughde Moreville, Lord of Westmorland, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton.
St. Bartholomew’s is the perfect setting for this play, the church dates to 1123 A.D. and has the look of churches of the period. The play, put on by Little Spaniel Theatre faithfully follows Eliot’s version, replete with a chorus of seven women who are used to foreshadow the archbishop’s demise. Apparently, Eliot drew on this aspect from Ancient Greek dramas, where the chorus is the link between the audience and the action of the play.
The priests of Canterbury announce Becket’s return from France where he was in exile for seven years. Then, the four knights appear as tempters to Becket in an imitation of the Temptation of Christ; the first knight is Safety, the second Power, the third rebellion against the king, the fourth martyrdom. Becket speaks to all four and then turns them away and proceeds to hold a Christmas service. The play then jump to December 29th, 1170, the day of the attack. Becket is resigned to his fate and doesn’t fear the men coming to kill him. His priest try to intervene but he is at peace with his decision and even tells them to unbar the door when the knights arrive. All the while, the chorus sings about the coming doom. The knights burst in, make numerous accusations and then assassinate Becket. Afterwards, there is a bit of comedic relief from the heaviness of the play when the four knights, each in turn, step up to explain why they had to do what they did. The chorus sings and the play is over.
The show was just a little over and hour and a half long, with no breaks between the three sections. One of the great things about this performance was that there was very little required in terms of props and attire. The setting of St. Bartholomew was a perfect venue that needed no extraneous decoration. The costumes weren’t high end or particularly historically accurate but it didn’t matter; the acting made the period come to life. The women of the chorus had great voices and put out a good effort to engage with the audience. Aukland did a brilliant job as Becket. Brignall, Green, Osgerby, Wharnsby did fantastic jobs as Becket’s tempters and later, as Henry’s murderous knights. Their post-murder monologues were one of my favourite parts of the play because they were humorous and brought the audience into the story. Sadly, this production is only running for a few more days – if you’re in London, make sure you stop by St. Bartholomew’s and see this play.
Thomas Becket – Martin Aukland
First Priest – Tyrone Coogan
Second Priest – Edward Fisher
Third Priest – Damian Regan
The Four Knights/Four Tempters
Edmund Sage Green