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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
by Lizzie Loveridge

Before the day of his death, no man knows his real courage.
--- Becket
Jasper Britton as King Henry II
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
It is a powerful story. A king of England falls out with his best friend and ally whom he has raised to the highest rank and who is then murdered because the perpetrators think that is what the king wants. The murder victim becomes England's greatest saint and pilgrimages to pray to him inspire the first great work in English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. John Caird's production of Jean Anouilh's Becket opens in a suitably grand and inspiring way. A naked king, Henry II (Jasper Britton) prostrates himself to be flagellated in repentance for the sin of murder. The greatest man in the land is reduced to abject humility.

The legend of Thomas a Becket and his king, Henry II featured in TS Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral but this new translation by Frederick (and Stephen) Raphael is based on the French playwright Jean Anouilh's 1958 play Becket. The 1960s saw a celebrated film based on the Anouilh play with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton playing the historical pair.

The story of the play centres on the appointment of Thomas a Becket to the Archbishopric of Canterbury by the king to suppress the Church's influence. What Becket then does is a surprise. He becomes a devout churchman defending the Church, churchmen and monks against attacks from the state and king and archbishop are locked in a feud. The political theme of Becket's defence of Saxon serfs joining the Church to escape serfdom seems more at home in the idealist and egalitarian 1960s than today when it seems simplistic and overlaid on twelfth century history. Anouilh's Becket is a Saxon resisting the Norman French invaders whereas the real Becket was of course a Norman nobleman too.

John Caird's production feels pedestrian, old fashioned and lacking in personality. It should be a great story but it somehow misses the mark, feeling overly long and approaching the three hour mark. Too often the obvious is stated and restated, like in the scene portraying the abject poverty of the Saxon forester. The faux modernity of combining medieval design with Japanese so that clergymen wear cross over robes, and futons are rolled out to sprawl on, did not work for me. I liked the wooden horses, high stools on wheels pushed by spare members of the cast but much of the rest of the design is minimal, relying heavily on piped sacred music for a lack of visual atmosphere.

Jasper Britton has come of age on the London stage and as the king he has some lively lines in the second act as he bemoans his terrible wife, mother, children and we see why he misses the companionship of Becket. Britton plays a petulant and intransigent monarch and his comic portrayal brings a welcome smile. Dougray Scott seems to have lost his way rather than to have found it as the archbishop, but this failing may well be down to the direction. Too many of the supporting roles are caricature: the carousing, all drinking Norman barons and the terrible camp portrait of the French monarch Louis (Michael Fitzgerald) would have been more at home in The Simpsons than on the West End stage.

Written by Jean Anouilh
In a new adaptation by Frederick and Stephen Raphael
Directed by John Caird

Starring: Jasper Britton and Dougray Scott
With: John Quentin, Sean Baker, Michael Fitzgerald, Arthiur Kohn, Catrina Lear, Bethan Bevan, Richard Stacey, Gareth Lleweleyn, Daniel Pirrie, Ann Firbank, Polly Kemp, Michael Cox, Paul Stewart
Designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Sound: John Leonard
Original Score: John Cameron
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 901 3356
Booking to 12th February 2005
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th October 2004 performance at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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