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Murder in the Cathedral

Review by Patrick Ledwell

T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is, among other things, a drama about whether or not intentions determine the outcome. Locating us in the strife between church and state in 12th century England, Eliot shows soon-to-be-saint Thomas Becket pressing outside his spiritual authority as archbishop, much to the irritation of his former friend King Henry II. As martyrdom nears, Becket wonders aloud whether this outcome is God’s will or emanates from his own intentions on immortality: “The last temptation is the greatest treason/To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Ambitious and uncompromising, the ACT production of Murder in the Cathedral—which ran at the Indian River Festival in August—contained its own interplay between intentions and outcomes. The design of director Terry Pratt was to create “location theatre,” where the audience gets immersed in the dramatic milieu. From the beginning of the play, when a chorus of women penitents rose from the pews, the action surrounded the congregation in an engrossing way, with characters shuffling along the outer aisles and bursting in the doors at the back.

Although Murder in the Cathedral is often performed in churches, the director made an evocative choice in St. Mary’s Church, with its red-tinged wooden ceilings known for reverberating like another instrument with the music happening within. Musical director Carl Mathis beautifully complemented the pieces specified by Eliot with further selections from the early Church. The mysterious chant that opened the performance wafted from the choir loft like candle smoke, immediately enveloping the listeners in the atmosphere of another time. Despite the church’s acoustical majesty, the words of Eliot’s verse drama did not always fare as well. The Church is designed to amplify words spoken from the altar, and not from the congregational spaces back in the nave. Particularly as performers moved into the periphery, some of the dark poetry got lost in the vaulted ceiling, and listeners were forced to strain after it. There were several times that I would have foregone the majestic surroundings of St. Mary’s for the charged intimacy of a chapel. Clive Keen performed Becket as an introspective and humble man caught in the battle between church and state, struggling to reconcile God’s will with his office. In a smaller theatre, the audience could have seen this internal drama play out more visibly across his face.

But in the cathedral, as makes sense on reflection, the audience responded to those performances when Keen and the other actors were in a declamatory mode. The Chorus of common women spoke their visions of a troubled world in impassioned and musical tones. The four knights who murder Becket offer speeches to justify their actions, and their homespun reasoning—about how Englishmen appreciate an underdog, and about how they had nothing to gain money-wise—resonated with the Island audience like a stump speeches by the local MLA.

By the end of the play, plainspeak is what playgoers wanted to hear. Neither the director’s intentions, nor the actors’ performance, can be faulted for the outcome. But given the beauty of Eliot’s language, and the creativity all invested in bringing it to life, this mood suggests a case of the right production in the wrong location.

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