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. It's revived now in a clear, fluent, if faintly hollow, production by John Caird with Jasper Britton as a splendidly excitable, jokey Henry II, and Dougray Scott cutting a handsome, charismatic and tantalisingly unfathomable figure as the man who is made first Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury.
The historical Becket was as Norman as Henry, but Anouilh's play makes 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 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 king. Becket's progress toward martyrdom is compromised by the mixed motives of a man for whom defending God's honour is also a convenient solution to personal identity problems and private self-disgust. Scott's Becket is good at conveying the emotional unreachability that so infuriates Henry. But he could afford to keep us guessing more about the completeness of Becket's sincerity.
Henry's response to his troublesome Archbishop is likewise, in Anouilh's account, by no means purely a matter of principle. As Britton conveys, it's also the wounded, furious pique of a jilted lover. His attraction to Becket goes beyond mere friendship in its almost homoerotic neediness. When he boorishly insists on taking over his pal's mistress, it's clear that the motive is not sexual but a desire to punish 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 incidents: into the (mimed) assassination of the Archbishop, the naked Henry walks, ready for the flagellation that he subsequently underwent to atone for it. The pair embrace in a symbolic, out-of-time reconciliation that eerily marries the erotic, the religious and the political, for Henry is then quick to co-opt the myth of the dead Becket for his own ends. But there's a further twist. In the mind's eye of the King, the stripped martyr returns and assumes the pose of Christ on a raised crucifix. The final image is of the stricken monarch still straining toward a man who remains for ever beyond his reach.
Caird smoothly negotiates the cinematic flow of scenes, apart from a couple of awkward horseback episodes played on absurdly high-wheeled vaulting horses. You're left, though, with the impression that Becket has the trappings of an important play without the soul of one.
Booking to 12 February (0870 901 3356)
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