Canterbury Cathedral
Opened 24 September, 2008

Amazingly, this is only the second play to be staged in the body of Canterbury Cathedral itself; even T S Eliot’s Murder In The Cathedral in 1935 was put on in the Chapter House rather than, as Sebastian Barry’s newly commissioned piece is here, in the nave. Both the play and Roxana Silbert’s production for Paines Plough (as part of the Canterbury Festival) use the location for its atmosphere and associations rather than as a specific setting. Robert Innes Hopkins’ set, an undulating abstract hillscape, serves as the land of Elizabethan County Cork where the eponymous protagonist lives most of his life, the area around Canterbury to which he makes two pilgrimages, or simply a podium from which he can tell his story. (The pulpit serves as another such for his accuser, the dourly righteous Mrs Reddan.) The lighting works its effects not only on the actors but on the stone latticework around them; at a few moments, actors are seen some way behind the stage atop the steps to the Choir, as if overseeing the main action.
This is a space for declamation, not necessarily loud but formal. Barry’s script is principally a matter of storytelling rather than dramatic interaction between characters: Sweetman tells his story, contradicted by Mrs Reddan, that we might judge his unquiet spirit after nearly four centuries. The poetical phrasing adds to a sense of near-ritual in the delivery of the lines. Fortunately, the lead players find the right mode in which to operate. Bríd Brennan’s mouth composes into a thin, humourless smile when not condemning Sweetman, who is played by the protean Conleth Hill. Hill is one of my favourite actors, and yet I do not think I have ever recognised him upon his first entrance, so fully does he inhabit each role. Here he pleads his innocence of charges of molestation and murder with perhaps more eloquence than his lumpish manservant could plausibly command, but he is always believable in his own performance.
This is a greater event than it is a play. Man Booker nominee Barry illustrates the “Old English” Irish Catholic nobility’s resistance to Tudor Protestantism whilst remaining loyal to the crown, and even recounts Henry VIII’s posthumous trial of Thomas Becket for treason and heresy. The play seems to be taking rather an Old Testament turn during the second of its three successive and self-conscious endings, until we are presented with justice tempered by mercy, and revenge forgone, a conclusion in keeping with both the ethos and the daunting, superhuman scale of the venue.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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