Four Nights in Knaresborough
Tom Greaves for Rooster Productions and Ellie Collyer-Bristow and Jane Lesley for MokitaGrit
Someone clever once said that there's no such thing as history, there are just different ways of looking at the present.
Here with Four Nights in Knaresborough there's a definite aim to make these knights not medieval relics but modern characters in a castle with snappy lines and a contemporary touch. While the result is engaging, there's also an ungrounded edge that the play can't quite shake.
Four Nights in Knaresborough is about what happens to the four knights who killed the Archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry's orders. The country is in uproar about the murder of a holy man within his cathedral and the knights are forced to take refuge in the North of England.
Trapped in the castle, with the knights seemingly abandoned by their sovereign, a claustrophobic atmosphere develops. Develops into what, exactly, is a good question. Paul Webb, the play's author, clearly does not want this to be a stuffy period piece offering only 'educational' interest.
The result is a strange mix of definitely 21st century language and mannerism (emphasised through swearing: one of the first lines is 'f"ckwit') with a period-appropriate setting and clothing. The undercurrent of nostalgia for 'simpler' times is met with a smattering and a flattering of contemporary tastes.
What Four Nights in Knaresborough does well is make the characters on stage engaging and provide for scenes that are gripping in themselves.
Each of the knights is interesting and unexpected and the atmosphere of abandonment and claustrophobia, where time is long, is well maintained throughout. The acting is very good overall with Alex Hughes excellent throughout. Lee Williams was a bit too melodramatic, but that was partly because of the character he was playing.
The set was genuinely perfect, exuding atmosphere and a lot of smoke. But it's hard to link the scenes together and the play feels like it's been written over a long period of time, with parts added on.
This isn't helped by the play inhabiting some nebulous anhistoric space, a limbo filled with bravado and libido.
On top of some historical inaccuracies, like references to birthdays or advanced algebra, some issues have been avoided, like how sodomy was considered a sin, and much of the relationship dynamics don't fit the time.
An unrequited love of one man for his straight male companion probably did happen in the Middle Ages, but it's unlikely they'd directly talk about it: there's an edge of medieval homoerotic fan fiction. Worse, only one of the characters has a real conclusion with the other relationships prematurely cut off by the ending.
Still, Four Nights in Knaresborough is very enjoyable and has a wicked sense of humour and is satisfyingly ambitious.
It's just that what draws the action together is the setting and the historical context, but the focus is on the interpersonal relationships that feel dubiously modern and aren't properly worked out. It's looking at the past too much through the present.
"Four Nights In Knaresborough" is playing at Southwark Playhouse until the 13th of August.
Reviewer: Tobias Chapple