Last year I wrote that Under Milk Wood had set a new standard for junior school plays at Shrewsbury School. That standard has been equalled or exceeded by Heather May’s latest production, Murder in the Cathedral. It is perhaps difficult to conceive of a more different setting - from the distinctly unspiritual gossipy cosiness of Llareggyb, modelled in miniature in the Ashton Theatre, to the transcendent vastness of Canterbury Cathedral, for which the School Chapel did noble duty.
Eliot’s rarely performed verse play charts the events leading up to the murder of Thomas à Becket in 1170 at the instigation of Henry II. A reflection of Eliot’s own journey to faith from the dissatisfied agnostic poet of The Waste Land, written in the immediate aftermath of World War 1, to his conversion to Anglicanism in 1935 - to the dismay and ridicule of his fashionably agnostic modernist friends - Murder in the Cathedral is an intensely personal play about spiritual courage in the face of worldly temptation.
Heather May chose to view the play through the lens of its creator, interweaving haunting, nihilistic lines from The Waste Land (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”) with Becket’s unflinching faith, a reflection perhaps of his later self at the culmination of his spiritual journey. Laurie Morgan (Rb 4) created a wonderful persona for anguished and neurotic post-WW1 Eliot, struggling to make sense of the devastation of Europe and its values.
The action of the play proper is, on a superficial level at any rate, relatively straightforward, as various groups – priests of the cathedral, women of Canterbury, knights, tempters and eventually the Death Bringers – in turn address the Archbishop, played with clarity, presence and poise throughout by Ryan Mupesa (SH 4).
The priests and women of the town worry for Becket’s safety; four tempters appear and one by one attempt to persuade Becket of the folly of letting himself be murdered; Becket delivers a sermon hinting at his forthcoming death; four knights appear and threaten to kill him; the knights leave, giving Becket one last chance to flee; he does not, and is murdered.
In a throwback to the world of The Waste Land, both Rufus Thornhill (Ch 4) as a squaddie and Edward Pickersgill (R 4) as a general gave compelling performances as tempters, who in various ways attempt to pull Becket away to a sensuous and materialistic world.
Notable amongst the Women of Canterbury, commenting on events like the Chorus of a Greek Tragedy, were Kate Woodman (M 4), whose glorious singing of 'I Vow to Thee My Country' was a leitmotif throughout, her voice simultaneously expressing foreboding and fatalism.
In contrast, Third Form Drama Scholar Alice Lewis (MSH 3), in another compelling performance, was often a voice of hope, searching the skies for birdsong and the hope that Spring will bring regeneration and avert danger. Another Third Form Drama Scholar, Hattie Atwood (G 3), who opened and closed the show articulating the fear of the women of Canterbury, speculating over why they can't tear their eyes away from witnessing the impending disaster with the portentous opening line “Are we drawn by danger?”, produced another of many haunting performances.
Lighting and sound by our resident technicians Adam Wall and Brad Fenton combined with original music composed and played by Ivo Winkley (Rb 4) to produce a constantly changing series of often chilling and eerie tableaux hovering between this world and the next, so that one often felt one was looking at a series of gorgeously lit medieval paintings.
This was a haunting and challenging play, demanding and receiving total commitment from this young cast of 40, all of whom clearly sensed they were part of something very special.
More photos of the play and interviews with some of the cast can be viewed here: Junior School Play - 'Murder in the Cathedral'