Becket, Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Faintly hollow staging, but rippling with energy

Jean Anouilh knew what it was like to live in an occupied country. His experience of France under the Nazis shaped his whole approach to the title character in the 1959 play,
Becket, which is revived now in a clear, fluently staged, if faintly hollow production by John Caird with Jason Britton as a splendidly excitable and jokey Henry II and Dougray Scott cutting a handsome, charismatic and tantalisingly unfathomable figure as the man who is first made Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury.

Jean Anouilh knew what it was like to live in an occupied country. His experience of France under the Nazis shaped his whole approach to the title character in the 1959 play, Becket, which is revived now in a clear, fluently staged, if faintly hollow production by John Caird with Jason Britton as a splendidly excitable and jokey Henry II and Dougray Scott cutting a handsome, charismatic and tantalisingly unfathomable figure as the man who is first made Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury.

The historical Becket was every bit as Norman as Henry but Anouilh's play turns him a bastard of old Saxon stock, thus doubly an outsider and uneasy about his collaboration with the invaders and his close, hawking-and-wenching friendship with the King. His translation to the see of Canterbury has the ironic effect of giving him a new eternal master who transcends "race" and can therefore be served with unequivocal loyalty.

It's a play that never settles into being a straightforward contest between the rival claims of God and Caesar, church and state. Becket's progress towards martyrdom and sainthood is compromised by the mixed motives of a man for whom defending God's honour also comes as a rather convenient solution to personal identity problems and private self-disgust. In his days as a secular pal of the monarch, Dougray Scott's Becket is very good at conveying the emotional unreachability that so goads Henry.

But as the born-again Saxon Archbishop, he could afford to keep us guessing more about the completeness of Becket's sincerity. For all that this character is conscious that renouncing the world may be just an easy temptation, a bigger question mark could hang over his assumption selfless spirituality.

Henry's response to his troublesome Archbishop is likewise, in Anouilh's account, by no means purely a matter of principle. Instead, as Jasper Britton impressively conveys, it's also partly the wounded, furious pique of a jilted lover. His attraction towards Becket goes beyond mere friendship.

For example, when he insists on taking over his pal's mistress, it's clear that he is punishing Becket for his inability to admit to loving anyone.

In Caird's production, there's a powerful sequence at the end that merges two separate instances: into the mimed assassination of the Archbishop, the naked Henry walks for the flagellation that he subsequently underwent to atone for it. The pair embrace in a symbolic, fictional, out-of-time reconciliation that eerily marries the erotic, the religious and the political, for Henry is then mighty quick to co-opt the dead Becket for his own secular ends.

By no means a great play, nor a great staging (the horseback scenes on huge vaulting horses are a terrible embarrassment). But it's a piece that ripples with unofficial energy.

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