TS ELIOT’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral looks at the arguments, political and spiritual, that surrounded the murder of Thomas Becket on the alter steps of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
First performed in 1935, its Greek chorus of women was a popular format for many years, but more recently it has fallen out of favour, so the joint production by Studio Theatre Salisbury, celebrating its 70th anniversary at the same time as the magnificent church of St Thomas marks its 800th, was a welcome revival of the play. And in these days of political ferment, fake news and discussions of monarchical power, it seems extraordinarily relevant.
The structure of the play is a challenge for both performers and audience, with its wordy and complex arguments, seamless changes between reality and thought and blank verse rhythms interspersed with grandstanding politics and justifications (well, we know all about THOSE at the moment!)
Director Ann Acton and her creative team have enjoyed the opportunities afforded by the space and the acoustic of St Thomas’s, as well as the 1470s “doom painting” as the backdrop for the action. This is one of those stories where you all know the outcome – the names of Becket’s killers have outlived them by centuries. But what Eliot has done is to present a possible justification for their actions, and left his audience considering the facts – a jury sent out into the night, but with a threat of violence if they get the verdict wrong. So it is both modern and frightening.
Studio Theatre newcomer David Hallen is a powerful and charismatic Archbishop, wrestling with the temptations of corporeal and spiritual life, and a desire for famous immortality, but finding supportive love from his congregation.
The women in the chorus – George Cotterill, Joanne Flindell, Claire Martin, Julie Mullins, Sophie Townsend and Sue Tranter – have their own battles with everyday existence, the weather and its effects on the crops, the price of food, the need for warmth and an overarching desire for a quiet life, at whatever cost.
The tempters, who are also his Knights of Despatch, are cleverly played by David Rhodes, John Mattock, Paul Chalmers and John Jenner, each exemplifying the ways in which clever men can sway a crowd and make reasonable people believe that black is white.
Wendy Warwick-White’s mother abbess is the constant voice of religious fervour and the belief in peaceful, happy and glorious immortality. Brian Waddingham and Simon Haseley are the two increasingly frantic priests, trying to do their best for their Archbishop.
The remaining performances are almost sold out, before the company returns to its home base at Ashley Road, for a five-night run of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors in mid October.