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Two murders with conviction

30 May 2014

Peter Graystone enjoys revivals of plays by Eliot and Ervine

EIGHTY years on from the first production of Murder in the Cathedral, the question why a man would embrace martyrdom in the name of his religion is more vital than ever it was in T. S. Eliot's lifetime. His verse drama about the death of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral is being given a rare revival by Little Spaniel Theatre Company in the wonderfully evocative setting of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in London.

But martyrdom is not the only unexpectedly modern resonance in this production. When Thomas has to confront the issue of carnal gaiety, it accrues a meaning that Eliot never foresaw. And it is impossible not to think of payday-loan companies when Thomas stands against those with power. "I fear for the Archbishop," the women of Canterbury chant. Well, don't we all?

It's that chorus of women who give this excellent production its heart. The director, Cecilia Dorland, has set it in traverse in the quire of the ancient church, and the women wheel both vocally and physically to keep the performance fluid and intense. If the climactic assassination seems a bit bloodless, that is a problem with the play, not the production. The real drama is inside Thomas's head. Behind Martin Aukland's still, compassionate eyes, it is possible to read Thomas's doubts and determinations even before he makes Eliot's verse elegant and understandable.

To watch this play in a beautiful church that Thomas himself knew, where the floor tiles he may have walked on are still on view, is a powerful experience. Candles flicker, music soars, and, on the day I saw it, thunder and torrential rain served only to intensify the drama. As Thomas says: "All things prepare the event. Watch!"

A production of a T. S. Eliot play is uncommon, but a production of a St John Ervine play is almost unheard of. The tiny Finborough Theatre has a reputation for resurrecting forgotten plays and making them seem essential. It has succeeded with John Ferguson, which hasn't had a professional production for a hundred years. It's terrific.

In a County Down farmhouse, John Ferguson endlessly quotes the Bible, which has made sense of the world for him, and surrenders himself into the hands of the God he loves. The words of hope he finds in those pages are able to sustain him in the face of misfortune, asit becomes increasingly likely that poverty will drive the family from the farm they have worked all their lives. But the complexity of the issues Ferguson faces deepens when his daughter is assaulted and people for whom he cares are implicated in the revenge that follows. As the truth becomes clearer, the difficulty of finding unambiguous answers to ethical questions in the pages of the Bible becomes plain, and twists of fate seem like God's mockery.

Simply set and passionately acted, the play is a moral thriller. Ciaran McIntyre is tremendously moving in the title role, crumpling as he realises that his biblical destiny is not the optimism of David's psalms but the tragedy of David's personal life.

Apparently, the production was undercooked on press night, and newspaper critics were tentative. By the time I saw it three nights later, it had played in, and the audience was completely gripped. Honestly, a rock would have wept.

Both plays run until 14 June. Murder in the Cathedral at St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London EC1. Box office: phone 07756 729969. www.thelittleboxoffice.com/littlespanieltheatre.

John Ferguson at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10. Box Office: phone 0844 847 1652.



Offer for Church Times readers: £12 tickets for John Ferguson with code CHURCH12, online only. http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2014/john-ferguson.php

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