The action starts close by the cathedral with the audience being walked in and seated by the Women of Canterbury and from there we are launched fully a production that places a far greater emphasis on music than any I have seen before. Much of the choral speaking associated with the Women is replaced by a newly composed score. At times this is highly successful – mixing, as it does, plain chant and other church forms with a more modern sound world and at others, the acoustics defeat the good work of all involved by swallowing the words.
It is almost impossible to detect which of the cast are professional and which are drawn from the current student body. This is credit both to the talents of those involved and the hard work of director, Tom Littler who has worked to bring out the detail in the text through his careful preparation of each speech. The highlights of the evening for me come with the interaction between Thomas and the four tempters in the first act – mirrored perfectly by the Knights attempts to justify the murder in the second.
The action is more focussed in the first act opening out to the entire length of the aisle for the second. It is here that the glory of the setting is most appreciated and causes the production most problems. The cavernous acoustic means that ensemble is hard to achieve for choric moments and that parts of the audience are left somewhat disconnected from the action. The staging aims to keep the events moving round the space so that all can see as much as possible – but often at the expense of vocal clarity for others.
This is a brave and bold piece of programming from Oxford Playhouse and it is, on the whole, very successful. There are some young student actors who will clearly go on to match the success of the young professionals in the cast. All should feel very proud of what they have achieved.