“Look at us, the men who murdered Becket by the altar”
Four Nights in Knaresborough takes a rather unique look at events around a significant moment in medieval English history: the assassination of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Paul Webb’s play, presented here by co-producers Rooster and MokitaGrit at the Southwark Playhouse, looks at the four knights of Henry II’s court who carried out the murder of the troublesome Archbishop and follows them as they hole up in a drafty castle in deepest Yorkshire, visiting them four times over the course of a year as they wait, and wait, unsure of just what is going to happen to them.
The promotional material cites a modern day sensibility that has “more in common with Tarantino than Cadfael” but what the play put me most in mind of, particularly in the first half, was Sam Mendes’ film Jarhead in its portrayal of military men driven stir-crazy, frustratingly forced into an extended waiting game rather than doing what it is that they do best. And so we see the knights here dealing with the mundanity of killing time with tales of constipation, horniness, hunger, sword-polishing, even love, and the funniest scene of emergency medieval dentistry I’ll wager you’ll see all year.
But through all the swearing and dick jokes, moments of depth emerge as more serious subjects are also touched upon: the homoerotic ties that underscore notions of chivalric brotherhood, the aching losses they have experienced in the grim reality of a medieval England wracked by years of conflict in The Anarchy, the gravity of the crime they have committed and where it places them on the game-board in the titanic battle between church and state. We come to see the four distinct characters that make up this motley crew: Brito, the youngest of the lot, bristles with a roguish self-confidence and sexual swagger as played by Tom Greaves; Alex Hughes’ Fitz seems borderline-psychotic with his fierce intensity; Morville’s nervy manner betrays his guiltiest of consciences, Lee Williams’ overly foppish portrayal teetering on the edge of mania; and Traci, the most noble of the lot and the most tortured, unable to surrender to his deepest desires, given beautiful life here with a richly nuanced performance from David Sturzaker.
The modern aesthetic, emphasised here with Anthony White’s punchy contemporary soundtrack, ensures we’re never in the realm of dusty historical documentary and the use of modern language in all its varied profanity works well when the play wants to be a comedy. But Webb’s writing can’t quite seem to settle and so we lurch to a more serious examination of the spiritual crises that begin to afflict the men, robbing the production of some of its energy yet failing to fully exploit the opportunities to delve into more of the sprawling imperial ambition of Henry II that lies behind the original act. Perversely, his evident desire for this to be also taken seriously as a historical drama act also works against it in the second half: the shift to a more serious tone crucially exposes the anachronisms that we earlier forgave because we were laughing, the importance now accorded to them suddenly makes these modern attitudes much more glaring in this medieval context.
Martin Thomas’ highly effective design with its ever-smoking fireplace, gloomily lit by Howard Hudson, houses what is for the most part a raucously entertaining evening. Webb’s writing may leave one frustrated from time to time, he should either trust the history and political machinations of the time to be entertaining enough or go all out for a comedy, he does not show the skill to blend them well here. But whether through the genuine sense of menace that emanates from Fitz or the touching quasi-relationship between the eager-to-please-but-not-quite-that-much Brito and the repressed Traci, Four Nights in Knaresborough keeps the engagement and entertainment levels sufficiently high to make it a (k)night to remember. Sorry, I’ll get my bag… 😉