THEATRE / A troublesome priest: Paul Taylor on Steven Pimlott's production of Murder in the Cathedral at the Swan Theatre

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The Independent Culture
The Fourth Tempter in Steven Pimlott's new staging of Murder in the Cathedral at the Swan gives Thomas Becket a special cause to recognise that when he dangles before him the 'glory after death' of martyrdom and the vision of pilgrims queueing at his jewelled shrine, this figure is simply confronting the Archbishop with his own darkest, pride-tainted desires.

Like a detached, surprising afterthought to the other temptations, he bustles down from a balcony seat and you notice, as he takes off his hat and coat, that they are identical to the ones Thomas wore on his return from France. Clad in dog-collar and crucifix, the Tempter, while talking, adopts the same physical postures as his prey, so that Michael Feast's horror-struck Thomas seems to be recoiling from a distorted reflection of himself.

The canonicals and the concerned-seeming manner of this tempter also give the episode an unsettling ambiguity, reminding you that Eliot later thought that it could be profitably left open in production whether the character is evil or actually a good angel in disguise.

A simple, potent idea, incisively executed, it provides a gripping moment in a production whose interpretative decisions are often more questionable. For example, Pimlott has transplanted the action from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. True, Eliot wrote that he wanted 'to bring home to the audience the contemporary relevance of the situation', but the manner in which he chose to communicate what is eternal about Becket's martyrdom precisely depends upon the audiences' dislocation from these events.

If the Knights are already fully modern figures who perform the murder like balaclavad terrorists, it reduces the half- comic shock effect of the aftermath when, in joltingly contemporary lingo ('it does go against the grain to kill an archbishop'), they make direct contact with posterity and offer us pragmatic justifications for their action. 'If you have arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the state, remember that it is we who took the first step': here, there is no gulf for such a remark to wink across. And all the talk of Popes and alliances with Rome strikes a bizarre note in what are clearly post-reformation times, with clergy who could have stepped out of Racing Demon.

Michael Feast makes Thomas too self-dramatising for my taste; the Christmas sermon in particular is milked as if the future saint was hell bent on leaving not a dry eye in the cathedral. To the non-believer, the play naturally raises doubts about whether a man could ever submit to martyrdom without a touch of contaminating self-regard, but at least in Mr Feast's Thomas there is no trace of insufferable serenity. He is palpitating in an ecstasy of terror when the knights (who do the usual double, as the Tempters) fall on him with savage butchery. In Pimlott's production, the four Canterbury women who make up the excellent chorus do not mediate for us the horror of this event (their lamentation is delayed till it is over) and Thomas's corpse remains where it has slumped, centrally, for the rest of the action, the 'instant eternity' of his witness made palpable, while around him the women and priests pass through guilt and repentance to thanksgiving.

The Swan, with its high galleries and its thrust stage, makes a very good setting for the play and Pimlott exploits its various levels to the full. In what I think is a first, he even has the Knights bursting in from outside through the door in the curved back wall, imparting to the proceedings a shivery sense of a sacred site being violated.

Continues in rep (0789 295623)

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