The Theatreguide.London Review
The psychology of Thomas Becket is one of British history's enduring mysteries. When Henry II made his political ally and drinking buddy Archbishop of Canterbury in order to control a troublesome clergy, Becket surprised everyone by taking his new job seriously and causing the King even more trouble, leading to Becket's murder at the hands of barons who thought they had heard the King order it, and his canonisation in record time.
The question of why Becket changed loyalty, and evidently personality, so disastrously has fascinated historians and writers ever since. Jean Anouilh's solution, in this 1958 play, was to violate history in the name of drama. He turned the patrician and Norman Becket, 15 years older than the King, into a contemporary and a Saxon.
In this England barely a century after the Norman Conquest, Anouilh's Becket can't help feeling an outsider in the court, his high living somehow unreal when other Saxons are defined by their poverty. From early in the play, Becket expresses a hunger for a world that would make more sense, that had a clear place for him in which he would feel at home.
He finds that in the Church, where his only discomfort comes from the fact that asceticism is so easy and comfortable to him and that he is not doing enough to earn this happiness.
Meanwhile, Anouilh's Henry is a bluff, earthy man without a hint of the spiritual or intellectual about him, and who is so far from comprehending Becket that he believes to the end that it may all have started in a fight over a girl. But Henry has his own torment, the simpler but no less real pain of losing his best friend.
A major strength of John Caird's new production is that all this is crystal clear and believable - if this is not really what went on inside Becket and Henry, it is a dramatically satisfying fiction.
Dougray Scott gives Becket a gravity and vague disassociation from what's going on around him from the start that make us believe his discomfort in the first half of the play and his relief and wonder at finding a home in the Church. The only weakness in his portrayal is almost built into the role - Becket must be so internal and undemonstrative through both halves of the play that his spiritual adventure never really catches fire. We observe and comprehend his story more than feeling it.
In some ways Jasper Britton has the easier task as Henry, just because the less complex King shows us everything he's going through. It is to Britton's credit that we feel for Henry, however less fascinating psychologically he may be, because the actor draws us into an experience almost beyond the character's limited ability.
The new translation by Frederic Raphael and his son Stephen flattens out some of Anouilh's signature poetry and gives the play an occasionally jarring modern sound, and a few things in John Ciard's direction - notably some oversized hobby horses for a key outdoor scene and having the king vomit out his famous ambiguous order ('Will no one rid me...?') one retching word at a time - just don't work.
In a large supporting cast, Michael Fitzgerald stands out as the French King who uses a mask of jolly buffoonery to cover a sharp political mind.
As I say, the play never quite catches fire, and you will find yourself observing and understanding more than being caught up in it. But as an intellectual exercise and historical 'what-if' it is wholly satisfying.
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Review - Becket - Haymarket 2004