20 - Saturday 22 November 2008
Director John Willmer
of Women of Canterbury
/ Fourth Knight
Archbishop of Canterbury
Tempter / First Knight
Tempter / Second Knight
Tempter / Third Knight
and Technical Director
and Director of Music
music "Anguish of Conflict"
Henry II ascended the throne in 1154. During the previous reign of Stephen the country had been torn by the civil war with Matilda owing to a dispute as to the right of succession and the consequent anarchy had weakened the power of the Crown. Henry was determined that the throne should be secure and that the power of the monarchy should be restored. To do this, he needed an able administrator. On the recommendation of Theobald, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, he appointed Thomas Becket as keeper of the Great Seal and Chancellor of England.
Thomas was born in 1118, the son of a merchant who lived near Cheapside in London. He was well educated and attended law schools at Auxerre and Bologna. He entered the service of Archbishop Theobald and did so well that he was appointed Archdeacon of Canterbury, thus becoming the most important lawyer in the land.
As Chancellor Thomas became a lively and congenial companion to Henry, sharing his pleasures and living in splendour, although he was noted for his chastity . It is said that Henry was the only person whom Thomas was known to have loved. He was an efficient administrator and became a great support to Henry in his aims. He also conducted successful military campaigns, in one of which he won a notable joust in single combat.
In 1162 Archbishop Theobald died and Henry decided to appoint Thomas as Archbishop, believing that by having Thomas both as Chancellor and Archbishop he would find it easier to secure the reforms which he wanted. Thomas himself opposed this idea, warning the King that this would give him other loyalties which might bring him into opposition to Henry but was persuaded reluctantly to accept. Soon after his appointment as Archbishop, Thomas resigned the Chancellorship, to the King's anger.
It was not long before the two were in conflict. One of the main disputes was over the jurisdiction to try clerics who committed a crime. During the reign of Stephen the Church had taken this into its care to the exclusion of the secular courts and Henry wanted to reclaim this and have a uniform secular authority. When tried in church courts, a cleric largely escaped the punishment which he would have received in a secular court. Henry considered that after trial in a church court a convicted cleric should be brought before the state court for sentence and punishment. In a Council at Clarendon in 1164 Henry drew up a statement defining the relationship of Church and State, which Thomas opposed. Later that year, after further disputes at Northampton, Thomas fled to France, fearing imprisonment or violence.
Over the ensuing years there were many meetings, culminating in one at Montmirail in 1169, but resolution of the disputes was not achieved and a new conflict arose. In order to avoid any later dispute as to the succession, Henry had his eldest son crowned by the Archbishop of York, assisted by the Bishops of London and Salisbury. This had always been the prerogative of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas suspended the three bishops and induced the Pope to issue letters of excommunication. Eventually in 1170 a reconciliation of sorts was achieved between Henry and Thomas, though Henry did not give Thomas the kiss of peace, and Thomas returned to England.
their excommunication after Thomas's return, the three bishops travelled
to France. Hearing their news, and some further false or exaggerated allegations,
Henry flew into a rage and uttered words of which there are several versions,
the best known being "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"
Four knights took the King at his literal word and set out for England.
REVIEW: Murder in the Cathedral
What is the magic key that, as it were, opens the door to a classic play? It must comprise the understanding, the power, the energy and the devotion of those concerned with its interpretation. Here in this production at Hampstead Parish Church "those concerned" had found the magic key and grasped it firm. John Willmer as director, with valuable assistance and a much-talented cast had (by I am sure many hours of relentless hard work) given us the essence of a play that in the end gives as much as it demands - which is a great deal.
Yes, as John points out, this is a play relevant to our times, with issues of Church and State; it also digs deep into the core of faith, what is the danger of "doing the right thing for the wrong reason". This is powerful stuff; from the beginning, when the women of Canterbury (of whom more later) speak of their fear for the future, a dark tide waits behind the movement of the play, rising fast as events combine towards explosion. At the centre, of course, is Thomas the Archbishop, whose return from France lights the flame beneath the firewood, and who endures a death that is both defeat and victory. From his first entrance David Gardner made it plain that he had entered the soul of the man: he had dignity, authority, and the calm of one who can say, as he does at the end, "I am not in danger, only near to death". How well he listened, - to the tempters, to his priests, to the knights who have come to kill him. I found the "Interlude" of his sermon a still moment of calm. Though grandly robed, he spoke to "his children of God" with easy simplicity and described the paradox of mourning and rejoicing at a Christmas Mass with quiet authority.
But such a performance for its full effect depends on his fellow-players showing equal mettle, and here he was fortunate. To take first the women of Canterbury - they were beautifully interpreted: each was her own individual self, persuasive to watch. Each played her part in the tidal flow of the play and gave us the fine and familiar lines. There are many names and I cannot list them all, but as a token of an absorbing group I would perhaps select the youngest, Clemency Keily-Baxter, who gave us the last line with moving simplicity.
Then there were the Priests, the Tempters - who became the Knights. Again, actors who had truly grasped the essence of their parts, who held our full attention. Like opponents in a fencing match the Tempters finely tried to find the weak spots in the Archbishop's armour: the Knights stormed the Cathedral with true menace. The Priests showed their devotion and concern. I particularly remember Robin Saikia as the First Tempter, and Said Abdallah as the Second. And Jon Siddall's dignity as the First Priest. The specious apologies of the Knights are tellingly conveyed.
The play is also visually compelling. Margaret Willmer's design worked wonderfully - I especially remember the opening to the second Part where the Priests enter with the banner of St. Stephen. This is a play, of course, for which the Church is the perfect background. The dress also fits admirably, for this is, as has been said, a play for our times. The black-robed priests and the knights with their coloured capes make a strong impact on the stage.
The climax of thanksgiving, after the death, was beautifully taken, lifting the play from darkness into light. This was an inspired production which fulfilled all its ambitions and rose to every challenge. Congratulations to all involved, both on stage and behind the scenes.