The Honor of Thomas Becket
For those who have never seen a stage production of Becket or the fine film version starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, it is a fictionalized account of the friendship and falling out between King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket. In an effort to get one up on the only institution that rivals his own power, Henry makes Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury--smartly placing "the king's man" in the highest position of authority in the Church. The snag in his plan is that he doesn't foresee Thomas taking his new position so seriously; Becket immediately puts his past life of drink, women, and leisure behind him to take up the robe and, along with it, a hard-headed devotion to charity. This so riles the king that he more or less orders Thomas dead.
In his adaptation, Errickson unfortunately doesn't do much to highlight the finer points of the Becket/Henry argument (mostly dealing with Becket's choice to excommunicate a man who killed a priest). Instead, he draws our attention to the larger point that Becket has betrayed Henry by acting in the Church's interests rather than the King's. This may be the fault of Anouilh's original French text rather than the adaptation but, either way, the rift between Henry and Becket occurs so fast that it's difficult to comprehend the cause of the conflict. As a result, this feels like a play without a middle: Thomas' false sense of loyalty to the King is demonstrated in the first act, and his acceptance that it's his destiny to fight and die for the rights of the Church is shown in the second. But what of the emotions involved here? Thomas' change of heart is accomplished in the space of a monologue and we see little of Henry's wonder and building anger at Thomas' "betrayal" of him; the two go from friends to enemies in a matter of minutes.
If the flow of the story is a little troublesome at times, Anouilh makes up for it with complex characters and depth of meaning. Influenced by Sartre's existentialist writings, he shows us that Thomas' transformation from a man of the world to a man of God isn't a transformation at all; rather, he is accepting his life's call, becoming what he was always meant to be and, in a sense, always ways. When the opportunity to take the position of Archbishop (the most holy calling in the kingdom) arises, he at first fights tooth and nail against it but finally accepts it fully, realizing that this is his reason for being.
It's a long and talky play, one that requires a strong cast to really make it shine. Perhaps because the company is running three shows in repertory, a few of its members stumbled over lines during the performance I attended, but most of them had a pretty good command of their characters.
Though the two leads aren't completely up to the task of communicating so many emotions, they play quite well off each other. A little shaky at the beginning and a tad histrionic at the end, Victor M. Trevino hits his stride for much of the play. As Henry, he never quite manages to communicate the more comic and ironic aspects of Henry's personality, but he does well in showing us his love of Thomas and his own shame at the fact that this love has weakened his stature as king. Alan Jestice displays Thomas' peculiar sense of detachment in his life as a libertine but falls a little short of mustering the proper passion once he has decided to become a man of God. (Then again, one could argue that Thomas was never meant to be a passionate character; he is just a man fulfilling his duty.)
Marisa Lowenstein's simple set--a table and a curtain--is used very effectively. Beatriz Eliza's minimalist costuming doesn't work quite as well, allowing King Henry II to look less than regal in red shirt and black slacks. The four black-clad ensemble members, who must become priests and soldiers by turns, would benefit from more distinctive costuming than just crosses and swords.