Murder in the Cathedral

David Wurtzel reviews the January production in Temple Church of T S Eliot’s work.

2015 is Magna Carta year with its theme of conflict between the king, the law and the Church.

A welcome theatrical addition to this anniversary was a rare production of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in Temple Church for three nights only in late January. It was produced by Stephen Hockman QC, Treasurer of Middle Temple, and featured professional actors, director and crew. These were joined by a dozen barristers and others from the legal world to provide the Chorus of Women of Canterbury. 

Temple Church is manifestly not designed as a theatre but the production was cleverly staged on a raised platform which went down the length of the nave towards which all the pews face. Becket’s sermon was appropriately delivered from the pulpit. The cast deftly moved around to deliver their lines (the men were miked) in order to project to everyone. The coup de theatre came at the end when Becket insists that the doors be unlocked whereupon the west door of the Church was opened and the murderous knights marched in, calling out to their victim. The move towards the climax was relentless after that. Overall it could not have been staged with more atmosphere.

The story is simple, the themes are profound. Thomas [a] Becket, who was only ordained a priest the day before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, has been away from his see for seven years. During this time the people of Canterbury have suffered (“living and partly living”). The Chorus of Women who look to the Archbishop as their saviour are at the heart of the play in the eyes of the director, Joe Harmston, who as Artistic Director of The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is already well known to Kalisher Trust events in the Inn. The women are civilian victims who are found in any conflict started and sustained by men in power.

When Becket does return, supported by priests who have also been waiting for him, he is approached by four tempters. They offer him wealth, power and most tantalisingly martyrdom and sainthood so that he can from the grave exact revenge on his enemies still on earth. He rejects them all (“the last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason”). Nevertheless he predicts his own death. The background leading up to the murder happens off-stage and the detail of the political conflict between him and the king is referred to as contemporaries might, that is, without exposition of the back story. Still, it is clear that things are now beyond the realm of rational argument. The killing is followed by the extraordinary scene in which each of the murderers, now in modern dress, seeks to justify his action. They try to persuade us that by his unreasonable conduct Becket has brought this on himself and thus in effect committed suicide. This is state-sponsored murder as we understand it very well in 2015.

The impeccable cast was led by Philip Franks, who brought a presence and charm to the role. The women, swathed in medieval dress so that only their faces show, and the other “amateurs” proved that, once on stage, a barrister knows how to perform. The programme was full of thoughtful essays. Eighty years after its premiere, this verse drama set in 1170 could not seem more relevant.

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.