I must admit, the only time I’ve seen Becket performed was in the 1964 screen version starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton, when my adolescent self was bored sick by a film that seemed long on talk and short on action.
This revival, with a new translation by Frederic and Stephen Raphael, seemed the perfect opportunity to revisit the original play and exorcise those demons. But, guess what? It still seems long on talk and short on action.
It’s not as if Jean Anouilh was lacking material. The relationship between Henry II and Thomas à Becket was not only a stormy one but touched a variety of themes: duty to a state and friends, conflicts within the family, racial division, the struggle between the secular and the sacred and, above all, thwarted homosexual love.
Despite such riches, Anouilh managed to contrive a play that’s completely devoid of dramatic effect and, despite the best efforts of the Raphaels, still drags. What’s more, while the dialogue is snappy enough, the attempts to make the language a bit more prosaic don’t always work. There are elements of Monty Python in the portrayal of the Saxons and rather too many lines that are accidentally comic.
Dougray Scott gives us a Becket who, from the outset, contrives to be a martyr. He is, quite literally, a Christ figure. In a portrayal of some nobility, Scott’s introversion lends him an important air of moral authority. However, this destroys a layer of subtlety. Henry hands Becket the job of Archbishop of Canterbury because he thinks he can be trusted - there’s no way that the historical Henry would have given this monastic and austere Becket such a position.
Scott’s bigger problem in John Caird’s production is that, while he should be the focus for the audience’s attention, his Becket is completely upstaged by Jasper Britton’s Henry. The latter provides a performance of real richness, perfectly capturing the whining, petulant, spoiled brat of a king, while not losing sight of his ruthlessness. He makes the most of every funny line but, at the same time, never lets us lose sight of the fact that the main thrust of the story concerns him dealing with his lost love, as Becket truly is.
There are some nice cameos: Michael Fitzgerald is an engaging Louis and Polly Kemp and Ann Firbank are, respectively, a bitter queen and mother to Henry. Directorially, Caird does his best. There’s a dazzling ending where the action switches, within a few fluid moments, from Becket’s murder to Henry’s penance. But there are too many low points, not least the hackneyed, plainchant accompaniment.
However, it’s reassuring that plays like this are being put on at the Haymarket. For all its faults, this is far above much of the dreck that fills the West End. And it’s always good to see European plays on our rather parochial English stage. I just wished the assembled talent here had picked a better one.