It is mildly ironic that Arnold Wesker's play (completed in 1991) about St William of Norwich has finally received its world première in one of the city's few arts/performance venues not housed in a converted church. Still, the Playhouse's location in a former maltings does nothing to lessen the incense of ritual and symbol which pervades Blood Libel.
Wesker has eschewed the naturalism of his other historical plays in favour of a series of stark scenes loosely based upon actual events, recounting the twelve-year-old William's rape and murder, the town mob's rage against the Jews of Norwich (on the vacuous grounds that surely no Christian could have perpetrated such an atrocity), and the zealous campaign of the monk Thomas of Monmouth to have the boy canonised as a martyr.
We are shown the fabrication of pro-Williamite and anti-Semitic "evidence" through both self-delusion and outside coaching, and the debilitating and ultimately vain struggle of Prior Elias to hold to a line of reasoned inquiry in the teeth of a fierce lust to believe. When his sceptical "wisdom" is derided by Thomas as doubt, the enemy of faith, Elias replies, "Faith without wisdom is mere superstition," but the superstition welling up from the townsfolk and marshalled by Thomas in the cause of "my William" acquires the force of a juggernaut.
Director Irina Brown and designer Paul Andrews create a commanding succession of images (with an acknowledged debt to Brueghel and Bosch) against the bare old brick of the Playhouse stage, hung across with a curtain of chains. Brown stages even William's birth as a mystical rite, and achieves a fine medium between striking visuals and implied acts when depicting the ordeal of the boy (played by 13-year-old Ashley Jackson) at the hands of the Archdeacon's cook – a scene periodically repeated as a commentary upon the growing fervour.
The play is largely an ensemble piece, with most actors playing several brief, bold roles and only individual moments emerging from the quickening current. (An instant of black humour occurs when an aged fanatic, his testimony having been questioned, in Douglas Adams's marvellous phrase "dies testily".) Of the main players, Jonathan Bond is occasionally excessive with the Celtic fire of Thomas, compelled too often in the later scenes to over-top himself, whereas Stephen Webber's Elias is a figure of worn granite, both temperamentally and physically reminiscent of the late Lindsay Anderson.
Blood Libel undoubtedly acquires added potency from being performed, as it were, on the scene of the crime; nevertheless, its admonitions about the force of unfounded convictions and the perils of acquiescing to them for pragmatism's sake are universally trenchant. Were it to be filmed by the like of Nicolas Roeg, it would knock the tedious formalism of its thematic cousin The Baby Of Mâcon into a cocked hat.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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