Play makes the most of its cathedral setting

Murder in the Cathedral isn’t always performed in cathedrals, but the free scenery is an obvious advantage, and Jonathan Cweorth’s production makes the most of all St. Paul’s has to offer. After the audience is welcomed at the front door, the action moves to the dean’s foyer, the crypt and back to the main part of the cathedral, and the audience finally finds itself in the choir stalls.

Such constant movement unavoidably slows things down, given the distances, the stairs, the size of the audience (over 40 people on Friday night), but this does not detract. Transitions are guided by actors transformed into smiling ushers, and by appropriately medieval music by the Rare Byrds recorder consort and chorus. Interval refreshments, provided by the Dunedin Medieval Society, include mulled wine, hot spiced apple juice and delicious nibbles.

Helen Fearnley plays Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered, by knights loyal to King Henry II, in his own cathedral in 1120. She leads a 12-strong all-women (why not?) Suitcase Theatre cast. Performances are generally strong but those by Fearnley as the resolute yet wavering, sympathetic yet chilly Becket, and Clare Adams as a colourfully menacing tempter and, later, as one of the murderous knights, are especially memorable.

Splendid and obviously well-researched costumes by Charmian Smith complement the cathedral setting. Lighting by Lloyd Smith is effective and unobtrusive, except for one light in the crypt shining distractingly into the eyes of a portion of the audience.

For me, the best thing was the way the production lifted T.S. Eliot’s lovely but weighty verse off the page, brought it alive and occasionally made it soar. In the prose section at the very end, where the knights attempt to justify their actions to the audience, the actors found, and exploited, contemporary relevance in the Boris-Johnson-like quality of their distortions,

 - Barbara Frame

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