Progress Theatre - Four Nights in Knaresborough
10th to 19th April 2008.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
Worst year of their lives
Holed up and hunted, Becket's assassins start to crack under the strain
Four Nights in Knaresborough, at Progress Theatre, Reading, from Thursday, April 10 to Saturday, April 19
The historical background to this play, written by Paul Webb and first performed in 1999, is fascinating. Henry II sounded like a great king - and he had a long reign to prove it. However, his desire for a single legal system put him into conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and, as we know, Becket was assassinated. But who were the killers, and what happened to them? This play offers an imaginary answer to the questions.
The four knights fled to Morville's castle in Knaresborough, where we saw episodes in the year that they were holed up.
Brito, an irritating self-centred young soldier, was played by Lee Neville, in a fairly irritating and mannered performance, with a lot of unclear diction - but we got the picture.
Fitz, the manipulative and rather sinister elder statesman, played with great humour by Chris Bertrand, made fun of him and even after he was disabled, ran rings around him.
The fiery Traci was played by Steve Webb, who displayed a good range of emotional strength as we learned more about his true nature.
Morville was played by a newcomer to Progress, Steve Sumner, who was electrifying. His long monologue at the start of the play set the scene. It could have been a boring history lesson, but he made it come alive.
As the stress of the long and apparently unresolvable 'imprisonment' with his three increasingly irreconcilable associates escalated, he gradually declined into a kind of madness, in a most moving performance.
The breakdown of relationships brought about by their self-imposed exile reminded me of Lord of the Flies, but there was a woman to temper the atmosphere, as the steady continuum at the castle. Esther Walters gave a strong performance as Catherine, motivated by love and loyalty, who paid the ultimate price for her devotion.
It is an interesting play and was well directed by Harry Gray in his own cleverly designed set, enhanced by some subtle lighting.
Martin Campbell, who also directed Casino Royale, is due to film it later this year. It should be one to watch.
In 1170, Henry the Second in a bout of frustration brought on by Thomas Becket's refusal to compromise on the Church's authority supposedly uttered the fateful words "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"
These simple words inflamed four loyal knights who took it on themselves to confront the rebellious Archbishop at Canterbury. However, it went spectacularly wrong resulting in the 'butchering of Beckett in the very gaze of God'.
Therefore, having possibly made the "worst career move in history" the four flee to Knaresborough Castle where they lay low for a year avoiding the wrath of the Church and a superstitious peasantry.
Paul Webb explores their dilemma in Four Nights in Knaresborough through a purely speculative narrative in an attempt to understand the motivation and pain of this disparate quartet of Traci, Brito, Morville and Fitz.
Despite the lofty intentions of its author, it somewhat fails on first viewing. Is it historical drama worthy of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral or a historical crude romp immortalized by the BBC's Blackadder series?
The constant scatological crudity of the first act becomes tiring, stealing by stealth the serious nature of the crime. Despite these difficulties, Act Two finds the knights on top form as they deal with their demons. Any earlier misgivings soon evaporate as the serious drama dominates the intimate Progress stage.
The set and lighting worked to the play's advantage providing a metaphor for these austere machinations in an inhospitable twelfth century Yorkshire. The only warmth comes from Esther Walters' industrious housekeeper Catherine, a lifeline to the bitter world beyond the walls.
Against this barren sterile environment, Steve Sumner's broken Morville descends into a comatose depression fuelled and disgusted by exile and excommunication. In contrast, philosophical Traci (Steve Webb) keeps a physical rein on both himself and his volatile protégé Brito (Lee Neville) while still maintaining an eye on the menacing presence of Chris Bertrand's predatory Fitz, the bearish villain of the piece. As a tight group grappling with the protagonists' broken lives and hearts, the actors overcome the failings of Webb's script with its 'mockney' overtones by delivering a tense drama, tempered by humour that gripped the audience to the very end.