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by T. S. Eliot

Rex Walford discusses his produc­ tion for Cameo Theatre Company of Cambridge. Eliot's play about the martyr­ dom of Thomas a Becket, written for the Canterbury Festival of 1935 and first produced in the Chapter House of th e Cathedral, w as an unexpected sensation in its time. Commentators have since called it "a watershed in English th eatre", "one of the most unus ual pieces of dram a ever written" and "the great­ est play of the twentieth century". Its heightened and formal verse­ dram a gave full rein to the autho r's remd rkable gifts, but the pocJic revivill which it largely inspired petered out post-war. As w e a pproached production some major questions loomed: Could w e find a cast (and location) able to do justice to the comp lex ity and image ry of both language a nd story? Apa rt from the undoubted beauty and inte nsity of Eliot's blank verse, how compelling and well-stru ctured is MU RDER THE CATHEDRAL as a piece of theatre? Would 1996 audiences give it as much resp ec t and attention as their counterparts sixty years ago?

LOCATION A church rathe r than a theatre seemed the obvious location, but I had seen some other productions of plays in church to tally defeated by

echoing acoustics as well as by unfo rgiving pews and poor sight­ lines. We sought (and were fortu­ nate to receive) an invitation to play in St Mark's, Newnham, a turn-of-the century church which was old enough to provide an appropriate ecclesia s tical frilme, but without a rood screen dividing dlOir from nave. It was acoustically goo d enough to allow playing w ithout microphon es and to accommodate naturalistic speech, nuance and under-statement. We built a stage betwe.'n front pews and steps up to th e choir, but also used the choi r and sanc.tu ary at selected mom enb. TI1e Ch urchward ens allowed us to r move the front choir d 'ks nd two clergy prayer d esks for the duration of the per formances and this gave us preci() us extra room. The sanctuary was ed only as 'background' for the acti vit of the prie t and for th e murder of Thomas, who was stabbed in th e b, ck as he s tood at the altar eleva t­ ing a cross at prayer.

LIGHTING Though it was a co nsiderable ex tra cos t, w e hired in ex tra power cables and two 'Christma s tree' b, rs which were placed at the ba ck of the main pews to carry a dozen asso rted lamps, This gave us va ri­ ety, though a rath r flat look to most of the scenes. I would have

liked to add in some greater dimen­ sion with some top or side lighting but limitations of space and finance prt>vented the optimum. However, extra money spent on a couple of special effects proved worthwhile, As TI10mas was murdered we went to a si lhouette effect, with white light hidden behind the altar slow­ ly turning to red. At the cry end of th e play, as the Women of Canterbury p rocessed up the centre aisle ut te ring a gr oa t paeon of pra ise, e nding with "Gentle Thomas, pra y for us", WE' lowered the ma in ljghts and lit U1C stain ed­ glass representoltions of the sa ints in the sa nctuary w indo w from o utside (using six I'arcans on ti tands) - a powerful and meaning­ ful last image which thrilled our audiences nightly.



Though the play tells the story of a 12th century strug Ie be tween church Rnd state, Eliot's ow n vi ew about MURD R I THE CATIIE­ DRAL was th at it should have 'con­ tempo rary re levance', Some of the lines in the play (e.g. the combined speech of th e Tempters, and some of the apologias of the kn ig hts) are clearly written 'out of pe riod ' and I wanted to make a late 20th century audience embrace some of the uni­ ve rsal issues and no t be trapped into viewing it as just the represen­ tation of far-off days. So we opted for mod ern drt>ss, giving the Women of Canterbury everyday working clothes, Thomas and pr­iests tw en tieth-cen tury Church of England cassocks of appropriate colours. The knights arrived fi rst in modern army offi­ cers' uniforms, and late r in SAS­ type combat rig, with balaclavas and hea vy boots. An early indication of our style was the a rrival of the Messenger, clad in black leathel~ wit!1 a real motor-cycle providing a startling

sound effec t of arrival at the ch urc doors. (She turned out to be fe n _ after removing her helmet a.r chirpily passing it to a prie t hold as she delivered her tidin ~­ This could have backfired as gu"'­ mickry but was, I was glad to d ­ cover, taken positively by mos . our audiences as a helpful gui de things to cornel

Resea rch revealed that the t of the play had been re-sh aped c sidera bly by E Ma rtin l3rowne, directo r, in the cou rse of th lir­ production and that Eli ot him ­ was not ave rse to subsequent r sions. As late as 1956, h w rote Martin Browne to suggest thaI t doubling of the knights and t,emp te rs (a practice beg un Canterbury and follow ed in mart productions since) might not b ' good idea since it removed the sibility of the 4th tempter fro bei ng Becket's "Good An ge (whose presence is significant! / re erenced in the closing lines of I). We followed Eliot's late r p ref ­ ence and dressed the 4th tempt ­ identically to Becket to echo a w _ af Jill Paton Walsh's 1994 Booker­ nomin ated nov el K OWLED L OF A GELS - ".. .for angels <J!\e very bright mirrors." Martin Browne himself, se _­ ing room for manoeuvre in the firs production, had suggested gen t! to Eliot that, though incomparabl in the rhythms of language, he W ib less experienced in the rhythms theatre. We folJow ed Browne's lea in adjusting the length of somte scenes and reassigning some lines. One major difference from til.: original production was to turn tht lines of the Women of Canterbu l'\ from choral pieces into individu.lJ lines. We created a group of t ca thedral 'workers', sub-divid d into three sub-groups of clean r administrators and artists, an ~ assigned them the most 'human' the lines in the Women's choruse_

their Sunday best bustled to join the 'congregation' and sit in the front pews.

MUSIC We resisted the temptation to go modern in music, feeling tha t a framework of traditional plain­ song, sung live, would provide the right atmosphere at indicated moments. We were fortunate to find a group of plainsong students to help us; they enjoyed a tempo­ rary variation from performance at concerts and church services. A solo lament, lit by a single candle, gave the opening of the play much atmosphere, but the musical high­ point was undoubtedly the Latin chanting of the Christmas Gospel as a climax to a procession preced­ ing Becket's sermon.

The other lines (in the main, the more sustained poetic passages) were spoken by two more for­ malised narrative figures, seated to one side for the most of the action, and characterised as "Voices of the Cathedral". This had the helpful effect of reducing the length of some of the choral passages but also, importantly, of removing an ambiguity in the function of the women (required to be both quasi­ Greek chorus and 'scrubbers and sweepers of Canterbury') which has been criticised by some com­ mentators in the past. We similarly found it helpful and more vivid to characterise the priests as individuals, making the First Priest the Dean, the Second an energetic Canon Missioner, and the Third a spiritually wise Retreat Leader, and , by reassigning some lines, creating the character of a Fourth Priest ('the new Canon'). The second half of the play, in which the knights appear, argue with Thomas and then return to kill him, has opportunities for action, though the turn of events is not unexpected. We played the murder sequence for as much tension as we could, heightened by the priests turning out the lights as they exited in panic; this allowed the knights to enter in darkness, switch on power­ tul torches and roam them over the audience, run dramatically about the church as they shouted the "Where is Becket?" stanzas, 'find' Thomas in their torchlight and then roughly thrust aside the pleading women of the cathedral as they advanced slowing on the archbish­ op who was in the sanctuary. We care less for the murder of the shepherd or the travail of his tlock if he has not been revealed as an interesting human being in ear­ jer parts of the play. I felt that the


first three Temptations should reveal as much as possible of Thomas's former life - his carefree you th, his success as a politician, his enjoyment of country pursuits. We played against tradition by making the 1st Tempter a woman, and found many of the lines taking on extra sexual chemistry and meaning as a result; the 2nd Tempter used a Cabinet 'Red Box' (hired from the National Theatre) as a key prop; the 3rd Tempter was played as a populist demagogue, who unearthed the political cliches embedded in the text, as well as offering Thomas an inspection of his shotgun (a piece of sub-text which brought uneasy echoes of Hungerford and Dunblane). Another contemporary refer­ ence came in the addition of a 'spin­ doctor' who watched in the aisle as the knights murdered Thomas, then offered them cue-cards to prompt their politically specious explanations, and finally inter­ vened to provide the chilling last speech to the audience, warning them to "return home quietly and not provoke any public outbreak". The style which we evolved deliberately used realism / natural­ ism in the dialogue wherever possi­ ble as an antithesis to the language of Eliot's more lyrical passages; this worked well, especially when allied to the addition of invented business, which helped both to break up the longer speeches and to illuminate enigmatic parts of the text; e.g. Thomas's opening speech was accompanied with much para­ phernalia of arrival; the passage of waiting after the Christmas Day sermon was orchestrated by appro­ priate changes of altar and pulpit decor. The sermon was delivered wi th great conviction from the pul­ pit; the Women of Canterbury in

REHEARSALS Amateur actors do not always have the luxury of examining thor­ oughly the background to the material on which they are work­ ing, but given the challenges of the text, we made time to hold half-a­ dozen pre-rehearsal meetings for which I provided some notes from commentators on the play. This led to an animated discussion which, for a keen cast, helped understand­ ing of the play and subsequent characterisation. My assistant director provided valuable help in conSidering textual detail with cast while [concentrated on shaping the playas a whole; we needed to work equally hard in both spheres to ensure success. The play divided into sections for rehearsal quite suitably, and so, although we took 32 rehearsals to complete the pro­ duction, most cast attended about twenty. We held a post-production meeting for members of our audi­


ence and were gratified to have over 40 people come to offer their thoughts and comments ten days after the week of production. They included a member of the original 1935 Canterbury cast (she was then a final-year student at the Central School) who said that she came to see the play in 1996 "prepared to be sceptical of innovation, but forgot to be, so excellent were the perfor­ mances

RESULTS The eye-catching properties of a specially-designed logo helped effective publicity. We played to 96% capacity over the five perfor­ mances and found that the audi­ ences were rapt in attention each night, foUowing the play with great

concentration. To any company looking for a major challenge in terms of text, style and theme, and perhaps also looking for a change in loca,t ion, MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL offers excellent opportunities. On our experience, at least, it stands up very well as a 'classic' to provoke much interest and thought.


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Murder In The Cathedral - Cameo Theatre Company - February 1997