Jean Anouilh, adapted by Frederic Raphael and Stephen Raphael
Theatre Royal, Haymarket
From the moment that the curtain rises on Jasper Britton's naked Henry Plantagenet, waiting to be whipped for the disloyalty that he has shown to his murdered friend, John Caird's production grabs the imagination.
With its brash contemporary translation, there is a very modern feel, to an extent redressed by plainchant, Stephen Brimson Lewis's bare sets and traditional costumes; and best of all, Peter Mumford's superb lighting.
Anouilh's play anatomises the relationship between the Norman Henry II and Saxon Thomas a Becket, 100 years after William the Conqueror.
In their younger days, there is a great deal of camaraderie and male bonding, in some ways reminiscent of that between Henry V and Falstaff, as the pair spend ten years together "hunting, whoring and warring". Perhaps surprisingly, at no point is there any suggestion of homosexual overtones.
Henry's problems with his church lead him to push forward his best friend as the political solution to all evils. It might not be difficult for some to draw similarities with the actions of our current Prime Minister vis-à-vis the likes of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
Anouilh has a slight problem in introducing the transformation by which the King's drinking pal becomes Archbishop of Canterbury. While it is clear to see that Henry is dissatisfied with the financial restraints forced on him by the Church, there seems no internal logic to the appointment.
It is also a little hard to see why the high living Becket would give up all his worldly goods for a hair shirt, in the days when jewels and riches were the norm.
The play takes on a new hardness once the two men are pitted in opposition to each other and there is never a doubt as to who will be the moral and mental winner.
Becket is a fascinating historical play that helps to put into context Shakespeare's histories. John Caird, together with his adaptors the Raphaels, creates an exciting stage drama that at times feels like a two-hander despite the efforts of the minor characters, none of whom are fully drawn.
Congratulations for well-acted cameos go to Ann Firbank as the Queen Mother, Michael Fitzgerald as a very camp King Louis and West End debutante Bethan Bevan who combines her acting role with real dexterity on a harp.
Inevitably, the play will live or die on the performances of the two central characters, in this case played by Jasper Britton and Dougray Scott. The former switches from enthusiastic bon viveur to stressed politician and finally penitent, with skill and ease. Scott sometimes seems uncomfortable while Becket is having fun and lacks power. However, his northern grimness makes him a perfect choice for a self-abnegating Archbishop.
Becket may not be the perfectly constructed play but it is constantly gripping and the battle between two great men holds the imagination throughout. The subject-matter may sound forbidding. However, as delivered at the Haymarket it is rarely heavy and is often highly entertaining.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version
Reviewer: Philip Fisher