Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 31 July, 1996

Later this month the readers of arts pages will encounter many fine examples of "Edinburgh bends": implausible critical ravings about the likes of a Hungarian woman in a perspex tank or a Japanese company performing modern dance to a soundtrack of industrial Krautrock (both real examples from previous years and both fine shows, by the way). Rhapsodic praise for a Romanian-language production of T.S. Eliot's Murder In The Cathedral may at first seem like an early outbreak of the same malaise. It is not. This is a remarkable event.

Eliot's play, in which a man of God stands as a spiritual beacon against the darkness of a despotic temporal power, was banned in Romania under the Ceausescu régime. Watching this fearsome production by Art-Inter Odeon, a company of artists whose freedom of expression has been in danger from the post-revolutionary government, and whose existence is due largely to donations from the British theatrical world one can see why. Further, although it makes no explicit claims to this effect, Mihai Maniutiu's production can be read as a loose parable of the early Romanian revolution itself: for Canterbury, read Timisoara; for Thomas Becket, read Father Laslo Tökes. As in Eliot's text, the upheavals at the turn of the decade may have brought an increased spiritual and moral awareness to many in Romania, but have arguably wrought little transformation in daily life.

Here, the women of Canterbury deliver their choruses in anger and terror. In addition to the chorus themselves, a single simple-minded woman (Oana Stefanescu), on stage virtually throughout, also seems to stand for the community or the land as a whole: shackled and oppressed by the Knights and Tempters, taken into Becket's confidence and ultimately left alone onstage to speak her first lines of the evening the play's final prayer at first emerges syllable by racked syllable, building into an impassioned gush reminiscent of the work of a later Beckett, Lucky in Waiting For Godot.

Marcel Iures is a world away from the composure with which Becket is often played. Tortured and blindfolded by the Tempters, he seems even to give in for a while to the blandishments urging him to martyrdom from motives of self-glorification. His Christmas Day sermon, which he begins in a battered heap on the floor, is not a passage of serene acceptance but a troubled coming to terms with his impending murder. Eliot's four Tempters become five, but bringing only three temptations: a pair of sinuous male Salomes offering fleshly pleasures, a pair of stuttering academic apparatchiks bringing the lure of renewed worldly power, and finally the dream closest to his secret heart: martyrdom for vanity. Radu Amzulescu's Third Tempter is effectively Becket's dark half the Archbishop even dons his adversary's garb for a while, almost literally trying the idea on for size and stalks through the whole play, flinging handfuls of grain to the scrabbling women, acting as the main agent of Stefanescu's torment and, as it seems Becket may overcome the four samurai-like Knights (played by the four other Tempters), plunging the fatal dagger into his breast.

The atmosphere of gloom and foreboding evoked by Doina Levintza's design and Jenel Moldovan's lighting is given eerie voice in the score of Iosif Hertea. Sung passages of vocalise, episodes of percussion and a range of instruments including mournful animal horns and an unsettling Middle Eastern pipe are played continuously, to the point where silence carries its own portent.

Those of us familiar with Eliot's play as an academic set text will find its concerns given frighteningly tangible form in Maniutiu's production; those only vaguely aware of it as a dull "classic" will find their preconceptions shattered. Its moral concerns can be more than mere abstractions, as the Romanian experience testifies and this powerful evening brings home.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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