Review by Nomi Bailey
The challenge and scope for a playwright when producing an historical drama is that when working in a well-known historical framework, because of the lack of contemporary literature their imagination comes to the fore. Set after the murder of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170, Paul Webb’s play explores the aftermath for the four Knights who committed the deed on the orders of Henry II, who then tried to absolve himself by saying the Knights had misunderstood him. Arguably, their actions were “the worst career move in history”.
Paul Webb’s script sets out to create a medieval drama with a modern flair; a clever premise, yet he does not consistently pull this off, lacking in gravitas or a clear message. Happily, in BLT’s version the direction makes the most of what is, at times, a shaky script, with Tony Jenner steering his cast towards the emotional truth and historical context of the piece with focussed, clear direction and strong casting.
The sets are simple and we are shown three locations. First, a brief visit to Canterbury Cathedral for the opening slaughter. A small table with a cross sits at the back as the knights loom over Becket, encased in a bubble of red light. Next, Morville’s dream where he explains why they murdered Becket. The barren set allows for no distractions as he justifies their murder. The final set is Morville’s castle where the knights are all staying in one room. This set was enhanced by Emma Christmas’ bright lighting and the gently roaring fireplace, a simple wooden table with benches and a small table to the right holding various cups and plates, with a metal bath and buckets of water.
Tony Jenner’s castle design created a sense of claustrophobia and monotony, reflective of what must have become the Knights’ life experiences.
During the play the chemistry and teamwork between the actors was evident. Under clear direction the six actors worked well together, analysing and bouncing off each other. Gavin Dyer was both wonderfully funny and poignant as Brito, with brilliant comic timing – sometimes too much, as even his more sombre moments were still filled with hilarity. Paul Baker’s Traci was quiet and passive, yet we still saw the struggle underneath his bravado once he succumbed to his sadness. He used his physicality well, being both vulnerable and threatening when called for. His was a constant sombre presence on stage, although at times it lacked the emotional truth of his words. Patrick Neylan as Fitz was emotionally fluid; carefully intimidating and threatening the knights while all the time smiling charmingly, making his breakdown even more shocking. His physicality, however, was rather tense and inflexible at times. Chris Learmonth brought a subtle softness to Morville. This was a natural and honest performance which was open both emotionally and physically, making us sympathise as he battled his demons whilst hiding himself from the rest of the knights. As the only female of the cast Jessica Webb easily held her own through the cleverness of her comic timing and her emotional honesty. Anger was at the forefront of every scene, meaning we cared slightly less for her than we might have done. Stuart Lakin had, arguably, the hardest job of all as he took on several different characters from Becket himself to townsfolk. Vocally, each character had a clear distinction from the last and his use of accent was smooth and unfaltering. Physically, however, the characters appeared at times to blend into one another.
Each character shared their hopes and fears from existential crises and closeted homosexuality to rants about the toilet. Overall, an interesting look at the twelfth century and the men who made “the worst career move in history”.