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Murder In The Cathedral by T.S. Eliot at Southwark Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral - Richard Hubert Smith
Murder in the Cathedral – Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

As we entered the nave of the cathedral to watch a site-specific performance of T S Eliot’s verse drama Murder In The Cathedral, we were seated almost in the back row with the stage a long, long way in the distance. My companion turned to me and said “The stage is almost in a different borough” which was apt as were actually in Borough as this wasn’t Canterbury Cathedral where the action takes place but in the gothic splendour of Southwark Cathedral just a gargoyle’s throw from Borough Market.

Eliot’s play was first performed in 1935 and tells the story of the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket during the reign of Henry II in 1170. Written at the time of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, it was thought to be Eliot’s warning to the country about the dangers of fascism although it also addresses the battle between religion and the state that still goes on in countries around the world.

Showing a nation divided it could be said there are resonances today regarding a country divided by the threat of Brexit but then again, I’m seeing references to Brexit in everything – even “The Great British Bake Off” and “Teletubbies”. The play is also about the abuse of political power – something that is definitely relevant in today; there was fake news in 1170 too!

The story is divided into two distinct segments with an “interval” in-between. We watch as Becket returns from exile in France to take sanctuary in the cathedral, but although he’s advised to by the priests, he refuses to lock the doors and there are dark forces at large outside who want to kill him for real or perceived injustices in the name of their king.

After his murder (no spoiler alert here – it’s in the title of the play), his four assassins turn to the audience and address us as if we are the jury in their trial, trying to convince us it was a justified murder – or in their words “suicide”!

Murder In The Cathedral is an old fashioned and fairly clunky piece of theatre. It’s partly in prose and partly in verse, the text is sometimes old and sometimes modern with a Greek Chorus of six women who moan and wail – mainly about the seasons and the weather but due to acoustics in the cathedral, I can’t be sure. There are lots of long speeches and very little direct dialogue and interaction between the characters which at times tests the concentration. There’s also what Eliot himself called the “interval”, a long, long sermon from Becket that even director Cecilia Dorland in her programme notes said: “surely the sermon will have to go… that is theatrical suicide” but she left it in anyway.

There were two stars on show last night. Jasper Britton was superb as Becket and his performance lit up the other star, the building itself. Britton was ably supported by the rest of the cast of fourteen but although they were amplified, the sounds of their voices often reverberated around the cathedral bouncing against the ancient stone walls and disappearing into the vaulted ceiling high above and lots of the text got lost.

Hailed as a classic of British theatre, like the cathedral on a cold November evening it left this reviewer a little cold and also, just like the architecture of this amazing space, it’s very long and a little thin.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

Scena Mundi’s new staging in stunning cathedral settings, coincides with the 850th anniversary of the real murder of Thomas Becket and immerses audiences in the pageant of suspense, murder and passion.

Murder in the Cathedral is the ultimate struggle of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, an outspoken and courageous priest, silenced for daring to speak out against the king. Witness the assassination of Becket in a beautiful, immersive setting and feel his demons, the darkness and sense of doom ushered in by an iron-fisted monarch.

T.S. Eliot, one of the twentieth century’s most innovative poets, was fascinated by this martyr, gruesomely murdered for opposing the tyrannical rule of Henry II. Written in 1935, as Fascism rose in Europe, this poetic take on Becket’s death has contemporary echoes and warnings for our time.

JASPER BRITTON plays Thomas Becket.
The rest of the cast includes Rupert Bates, Pip Brignall, Jake Dove, James Keningale, David Keogh and David Shelley. There will also be a chorus of the Women of Canterbury.
The director of Scena Mundi Theatre and the play is Cecilia Dorland. The producer is Scott Weddell for Scena Mundi. The creative team includes Ilona Dearden as designer, Alex Marshall as lighting designer, Jean-Philippe Martinez as sound and music director, Clare Brice as voice/chorus leader, Faye Maughan as movement/chorus leader and Tom Wakeley as singing director.
Brigid Panet is text consultant and Dr. Charles Moseley is literary and historical consultant.

Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, interval TBC
Age suitability: 12+


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