A play for all seasons

Anouilh's Becket has presented an irresistible challenge to actors since 1959
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The Independent Culture

The French playwright Jean Anouilh's classic play Becket dramatises the complex and tempestuous relationship between King Henry II and his closest friend, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, which culminated in Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

Becket, written in 1959, last played in London to rave reviews 13 years ago, in a production starring Derek Jacobi and Robert Lindsay. The play has a tradition of attracting star performers: Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn in the original Broadway, Tony-award winning 1961 production, and Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in the 1964 film version, which secured 12 Academy award nominations.

This revival is directed by John Caird (Les Misérables, Hamlet and Humble Boy) and stars Dougray Scott as Becket and Jasper Britton as Henry II. This new translation is the work of Frederic and Stephen Raphael, and the original music is by John Cameron, who wrote the orchestrations for Les Misérables. The historian Alison Weir is the historical consultant.

I ask Britton if it is a hard act to follow in the footsteps of actors of the calibre of Olivier and O'Toole? "No," says Britton, who has watched the film version three times recently. "The film is slightly unsatisfying in that Anouilh's play is a lot cleverer than perhaps they may have realised in the making of the movie. In any movie, one doesn't spend too much time thinking about the shape of a scene - all the thoughts, wishes and desires of the characters within it - one just tends to get on with it from one angle to the next."

Britton is perhaps better known as Duncan Packer in the television series My Dad's the Prime Minister, but has worked extensively in the theatre. Most recently, he was Petruchio inThe Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed at the RSC, for which he was nominated for a Helen Hayes award.

This morning, Britton and his co-star rehearsed the scene when the King makes Becket his chancellor, while the afternoon's work "might be running about in the forest on horseback with hawks", Britton says. "We have these mobile frames with the suggestion of a horse's head and a saddle that are manipulated by other members of the company."

How did it all begin for the actor? "My father [the TV actor Tony Britton] used to give me his scripts to draw on the back of," Britton recalls. "When I was about seven, I was sitting in a history class and I turned a script over. I started to read No, No, Nanette, the huge musical that my dad had been in at Drury Lane in 1974. I'd seen the play. I started to see Anne Rogers, Dame Thora Hird and Anna Neagle coming alive in my head. It was a blinding moment. You get sent this script, it goes plonk on your doormat, and you learn to perform night after night, like them. That is for me. But before that, I wanted to be a bank manager, because we had no money."

'Becket', Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0870 901 3356) to 12 February