From Romania, with angst

'Murder in the Cathedral', TS Eliot's 1930s verse-drama about a man who turns against the State, has been given a startling reinterpretation at the Almeida. By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
"We had the experience but missed the meaning": Eliot's line from "The Dry Salvages" feels applicable, at times, to this Romanian production of Murder in the Cathedral. You emerge knowing that you have witnessed a ritual of compelling power, even if the significance of some of the symbolism that has been added to the piece in Mihai Maniutiu's staging remains uncertain.

A play in which a man is killed bearing witness to the "Law of God above the law of man" will have an especially strong charge for people who have lived under totalitarian rule. Eliot is on record as wanting to "bring home to the audience the contemporary relevance of the situation". A recent RSC staging, which shifted the action from 1170 to the 1930s, the decade of dictators when the play was written, had the effect of making Eliot's Becket seem like the precursor of those heroes of spiritual resistance against state tyranny in such places as Poland and El Salvador.

Maniutiu's production, whose look is stylised rough-theatre, mediaeval with modern touches, makes a similar point through the introduction of imagery that dramatises how Thomas's martyrdom brings liberation and imparts the power of speech. To do so, it creates a special role for one of the rag bundle female chorus, an arrestingly disturbed Oana Stefanescu.

The production begins with this jerky, thin, crop-haired figure twitching in a spotlight and knocking her head as if premonitions of tragedy are afflicting her like an attack of painful tinnitus. The chief tempter tricks her into his clutches and then into chains from which she is only properly free after Thomas's murder. As the tempter is mockingly stamping out the devotional candles that have been laid around the saint's corpse, this girl suddenly finds the strength to put him to rout by making a cross of the swords and confronting him with it. For the first time, as she cradles Thomas in a pieta pose, the frightened moans and whimpers by which she has communicated hitherto are swept aside in a gush of nervously surprised but fervent articulacy.

In a way that I'm not confident I properly understand, the emphasis in this production seems to shift away from the esoteric question of how Thomas is to die on the right side of that line that divides martyrdom and true surrender to the will of God from the spiritual arrogance of self-seeking suicide. Here, in a bizarre sequence, the knights who have come to murder Becket keel over dead and even have sand piled on them by the chorus. It's Thomas who obligingly brings these men of violence back to life by brushing them with the hem of his vestments.

I wasn't sure about this (it makes him look too actively determined to die) or about the wisdom of presenting the tempters as a pair of camp refugees from an Oriental ballet and a post-modernist Tweedledum and Tweedledee duo, backed by masked, dissonant instrumentalists. I have no doubt, however, about the astonishing stage presence of Marcel Iures's Thomas, a tall stooping figure, with an open, craggily handsome face that can light up with a smile of seraphic dignity. He makes the odour of sanctity sweet: it's hard to credit that he was last seen in England as Richard III.

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