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Becket by Jean Anouilh, translated by Lucienne Hill

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BBC Radio 3, 4 October 2009
 
The story is familiar, and dramatists love it. In one version, it has the best anachronism joke in modern drama, when Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine in the film of The Lion in Winter (1967) observes in a matter-of-fact manner: "what family doesn't have its ups and downs?" Henry II was one of the kings of England notable for his contribution to the development of law and administration, Becket his great friend in rather dissolute pastimes, whom he appointed first Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a dangerous move, because as they say in bureaucratic circles, where you stand depends on where you sit. Becket went native, and the great struggles of that period (going on all over Europe) became in this case dramatically personal. Becket after a period of exile on the Continent, returned to Canterbury in 1170, to be martyred there in the Cathedral by four of Henry's knights who believed that such an action accorded with his deeper will. The play is framed around Henry's penitential scourging. Becket was canonised in 1173 – a notably fast promotion.
 
Jean Anouilh's Becket has attracted a string of notable actors, including Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. Roy McMillan's radio revival cast David Morrissey as Becket and Toby Stephens as Henry. The actual play is lively enough, and it deals with serious and interesting questions. It is indeed a problem that Anouilh wouldn't recognise a spiritual conversion if he collided with it in the street, and solves the problem by having Becket a moody introvert ripe for a spiritual mission even amidst the bodice-ripping amusements Henry rather likes. The play was written in Paris during the occupation, and anachronism stalks all the talk of "collaboration." That's in fact the least of the play's anachronisms, because Anouilh pictures the Church as entirely cynical, aware to a fault that sincerity and sainthood are deeply unsettling to institutional stability. This is a twentieth century secular Frenchman knowing that the whole thing is a racket, something that makes it impossible for him to enter into the strangely ambivalent sensibilities of the twelfth century. Henry is presented as an entirely cynical rationalist.

Becket is, however, an amusing dramatic vehicle, and Morrissey and Stephens find themselves somewhat unfairly in the shadow of remembered predecessors. Vocally speaking they were good; but the main problem is that Henry appeared in this version of the story as a hopelessly lightweight homosexual involved in a tragic story of unrequited love. The balance between two complex and powerful wills is a casualty. The rest of the cast were more than competent; I especially liked Sara Kestelman as a dragon-like Queen, making the most of an underwritten role.