In their awkwardly designed and appallingly proofread programme, Piers Ronan and Demetri Alexander state candidly that they formed their theatrical production company in order to generate acting work for themselves. It's not surprising that they have little elsewhere. Neither is a bad actor; it's just that, in such an oversubscribed profession, there will always be more than enough who are better. Two such are Ken Bradshaw and Peter-Hugo Daly, who together with the duo of actor-producers play the four knights who slew Thomas À Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. The punning title comes from the depiction of four discrete nights during the twelvemonth they subsequently spent holed up in Knaresborough Castle awaiting some kind of rescue by Henry II, who went off to conquer Ireland instead.
On its 1999 première, Paul Webb (formerly Paul Corcoran)'s first play drew comparisons with Tarantino, Blackadder and the Carry On films as well as the inevitable T.S. Eliot and Jean Anouilh treatments of Becket's demise. It still seems an uneasy tonal mixture, exacerbated by director Peter Farago allowing each of the central foursome to find his own playing pace and register. Even when a couple of them coincide in pace, they don't as it were march in dramatic step. Ronan delivers every line with the same gung-ho cadence; Alexander gabbles, swallowing entire syllables and rendering the rest into a consonantal stew; Daly is a slow volcano, usually dormant but threatening, occasionally spewing red-hot; Bradshaw alone finds a range of performance to match that of his character's mixture of devious intelligence, martial pragmatism and frustrated longing. This is not individual characterisation; it's lack of focus.
Webb raises a slew of questions of political and theological motivation involving the knights, Henry, Becket and a God Who may or may not exist, but never gets very far with any of them. What drives the play is a chain of unrequital: Fitz (Daly) still hankers after Traci (Bradshaw), who is now besotted with Brito (Ronan), who lusts after housekeeper Catherine (Juliet Howland), who is trying to save herself for Morville (Alexander). Few of those attachments get very far either. And the greatest compliment one can pay to Farago's production is the backhanded one that it matches the play's eccentricities of style and pacing.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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