first night

Murder In The Cathedral

Rebecca Mackinnon experiences CTC's atmospheric Great Hall show.

The Great Hall is one of my favourite theatrical spaces in Durham. The atmosphere is ready made, the setting stunning - ideal for this kind of play, and Emma Butler's production capitalised on the setting for an aesthetically impressive piece.

The show opened with some haunting whispers from the four chorus members - Stevie Martin, Tash Cowley, Nikki Jones and Maddy Mutch. The tension was well sustained by all four and their voices blended well. Mutch in particular relished the rhythm of the language, acutely aware of the ebb and flow of Eliot's poetry. However, the main problem with this space is the need for crystal clear diction, particularly in the round when the actors are not necessarily facing the entire audience, and I lost a lot of the language of the opening scenes.

The next scenes introduced to us the priests, played by Tom Barber, Greg Silverman and Andrew Chambers-Barratt. Again, diction was not always as crisp as it could have been, but having said that, their movements around the stage conveyed a status not enjoyed by the chorus members, and Silverman, in particular, created a character very much in keeping with the dramatic style of the play, both vocally and physically, something that was certainly not maintained by the messenger (Charly King). Her physicality was that of a young woman living in about, well, 2009, and her speech and demeanour showed little awareness of the mood of the play. For me, at this point, the tension was broken.

However, the entrance of the Tempters was beautifully choreographed, and although I felt that use of more of the Great Hall's entrances could have been highly effective, I was immediately drawn in by the camply sinister Joe Wood. There was something other-worldy about his performance, which was echoed by both Harry Bresslaw and Callum Cheatle. All three were somehow inhuman - vocally, they seemed to appropriate a deadpan monotony, that, far from becoming dull, was just loud enough to hear yet just quiet enough to become a dark juxtaposition to their purpose. The more direct and mocking style of the final tempter's (Catherine Goode) speech was nowhere near as unsettling as the preceding quiet violence - but the choice to make the final tempter a female was conceptually intelligent, and perhaps wouldn’t have made sense had all four been directed identically. The final ensemble piece of the first act, involving the chorus and the tempters wheeling round a terrified Beckett, was evocative and the vocal intermingling was aurally stunning. Words were lost to the Hall's reverb, but the overall effect was a church-like cacophony, and added to the chaos.

Ollie Lynes, as Beckett, was a good foil to the unreality of the chorus and tempters. He spoke the poetry lyrically, but with enough reality and honesty to ensure the audience was not left behind by the onslaught of effusive verse. His sermon in the central part of the play gave Lynes the chance to show some impressive subtlety in a play otherwise far more concerned with words than character. Beckett became, through Lynes, believable, and at once sympathetic and a repugnant egotist.

The second half of the play heralded the use of a live choir singing from the Minstrel's Gallery. This was so beautifully placed, the music so perfectly chosen, that it begged the question of why it hadn't been used more. I immediately felt closer to the characters and actually cared about what happened to them - yes, the music pulled at the proverbial heartstrings somewhat, but Eliot seems so deliberately to alienate the audience on so many levels that this emotional connection suddenly lifted the entire show. Butler's use of the music was a wonderful directorial choice - unfortunately, this effect was lost purely through to Eliot's script. After the poignant murder of Beckett, accompanied flawlessly by Lotti's Crucifixus, the spell was broken, as we were given a history lesson on the causes of the murder. The dry language was more than compensated for by the engaging and accomplished storytelling style of the tempters, but it jarred with the style of the piece even in its very language - it was prosaic and matter of fact, and although the melodramatic Greek-tragedy-style of the rest of the play is not one I particularly care for, the shift in tone was just too sudden.

The show is definitely worth a visit, especially if you like Eliot. However, for me, the strength of the show is in the hands of the actors, singers, technical directors and the director herself - not the writer. I felt, towards the end, despite my critique of diction and clarity, that it didn't even matter that some words were lost, as Eliot's poetry is beautiful but essentially says very little. There is no plot revealed in the endlessly circling language - it is purely an effect, an echo of Greek tragedy; effect without true passion. I felt at times that more could have been done with the physicality of the chorus and tempters, but aside from that small point, the play is aesthetically stunning, with some beautifully crafted tableaus, polished acting and a very talented choir, of whom I would have liked to have heard more.

16 November 2009

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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