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November 01, 2004

Jean Anouilh's Becket at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Jean Anouilh's Becket
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
20th October 2004 - 12th February 2005

The story is familiar, and dramatists love it. In one version, it has the best anachronism joke in modern drama, when Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine in the film of The Lion in Winter remarks to camera "what family doesn't have its ups and downs?" Henry II was one of the kings of England notable for his contribution to the development of law and administration, Becket his great friend in rather dissolute pastimes, whom he appointed first Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a dangerous move, because as they say in bureaucratic circles, where you stand depends on where you sit. Becket went native, and the great regnum/sacerdotium struggles of that period (going on all over Europe) became in this case dramatically personal. Becket after a period of exile on the Continent, returned to Canterbury in 1170, to be martyred there in the Cathedral by four of Henry's knights who believed that such an action accorded with his deeper will. The play is framed around Henry's penitential scourging. Becket was canonised in 1173 a notably fast promotion. There's no doubt that Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is the one masterpiece inspired by these events, but Jean Anouilh's Becket has attracted a string of notable actors, including Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole.

The Haymarket has Dougray Scott as Becket and Jasper Britton as Henry, and opened in October to a snarling chorus from the critics. They thought the play was pretty poor, the production uninspiring and the leads (with some exceptions for Britton as Henry) not really up to it. Anouilh spells ennui suggested Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph. These reactions are overdrawn. The actual play is lively enough, and it deals with serious and interesting questions. It is indeed a problem that Anouilh wouldn't recognise a spiritual conversion if he collided with it in the street, and solves the problem by having Becket a moody introvert ripe for a spiritual mission even amidst the bodice-ripping amusements Henry rather likes. The play was written in Paris during the occupation, and anachronism stalks all the talk of "collaboration". That's in fact the least of the play's anachronisms, because Anouilh pictures the Church as entirely cynical, aware to a fault that sincerity and sainthood are deeply unsettling to institutional stability. This is a twentieth century secular Frenchman knowing that the whole thing is a racket, something that makes it impossible for him to enter into the strangely ambivalent sensibilities of the twelfth century. Henry is presented as an entirely cynical rationalist.

Becket is, however, an amusing dramatic vehicle, and Scott and Britton find themselves somewhat unfairly in the shadow of remembered predecessors. I thought they were good, certainly never less than watchable. The problem is that Henry appears in this version of the story as a hopelessly lightweight homosexual involved in a tragic story of unrequited love. The balance between two complex and powerful wills is a casualty. Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph was scathing about the rest of the cast; I thought they were terrific, especially Michael Fitzgerald as a sly and camp Louis VII. It is a further weakness of the play that, as you might expect, the women are never allowed to rise beyond the level of types.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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