In the autumn of 2022, Studio Theatre and St Thomas’s Church Salisbury celebrate two important milestones: 800 years since the founding of St Thomas’s and Studio Theatre’s 70th anniversary. They have chosen to celebrate these special dates with a joint production of Murder In The Cathedral by T S Eliot and to stage it in St Thomas’s Church itself. This is an inspired decision as, without an inflation-busting budget, it would be impossible to better this impressive venue for authenticity!
Thomas Becket was one of the most influential and powerful figures of the 12th century, at one time a favourite with King Henry II, loyally serving as Royal Chancellor, rising to Archbishop of Canterbury, and canonised by Pope Alexander III after his death.
Although one-time close friends, Becket fell out of favour with the King when he chose to support the Church over the Crown. As a result, their bitter dispute led to Becket’s self-imposed exile to France, a secret return to England some years later, and culminated in his shocking murder in Canterbury Cathedral by Knights loyal to the King.
This is the basis for Eliot’s arguably best-known play, set in December 1170 and inspired by the historical writings of Edward Grim, an eyewitness to events at the time. However, this is no Grim fairytale but a collaboration that combines an historical drama, ancient Greek dramatic methods and a performance style brilliantly to enhance this faithful production.
David Hallen is outstanding as Archbishop Thomas Becket. He embodies the role through every word, facial expression and mannerism, as equally believable when speaking directly to the audience, interacting with other protagonists or delivering Becket’s interlude Christmas Day sermon from the pulpit.
Paul Chalmers is just as impressive in his multiple roles as 3rd Tempter/3rd Knight/William de Tracy, with subtle nuances supporting every aspect of his performance, and John Jenner (4th Tempter/4th Knight/Richard de Breton) also compelling in every detail. There is also strong characterization support from Wendy Warwick-White (Abbess), Brian Waddingham (First Priest) and Simon Haseley (Second Priest).
This is a good ensemble production, with the Chorus of Women of Canterbury and Priests using the Greek method of speaking in unison as they mediate between Becket and the audience – no mean feat at the best of times, let alone with the ringing acoustics of an 800-year-old church!
Personally, I found the diction, dynamics and pace to be of a very good quality, and I could hear every word clearly (despite prompts occasionally being required). However, on leaving the venue, I also overheard some people saying that they found it difficult to hear everything that was said. By slowing the pace slightly and enunciating more distinctly when the narrative is at its most frenetic, this may help those in the audience whose hearing is less acute.
Director Ann Acton (assisted by Ian Flindell) has overseen a solid, considered, thought-provoking production, enhanced by the aesthetics of the venue, excellent sound effects and simple yet unpretentious lighting (Ian Flindell, Richard Laughton and Robert Lewis). A shout out also to the costume team of Rae Owen, Pam Hanan and George Fleming, particularly for the most impressive Archbishop robes! By using every entrance possible, the audience are immersed in the action, giving a real ‘fly-on-the-wall’ perspective that is very effective.
This joint production of Murder In The Cathedral concludes on Saturday 1 October (7.30pm) and is well worth viewing (although if you live outside of Salisbury, I advise you give yourself extra time to find the venue). Tickets are available from Salisbury Information Centre (01722 342860) or online.