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.
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
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.
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