FRIENDSHIP VS FEALTY: Quite literally, a morality play.
“Does one say ‘immoral’ or ‘amoral?’” a drunken, debauching young Henry II (Matthew Schofield) asks his best friend and chancellor, Thomas Becket (Richard Harris). “It depends on what one means, my prince,” responds Becket, who better groks the distinction. As the future King of England’s chief handler, enabler, and mop-up man, Becket whisks him in and out of brothels and frightened peasant women, glimpsing moral quandaries where Henry sees uncomplicated pleasure. Becket accommodates him but tries to minimize the moral fallout, serving a lord who is blithely free of any moral sensibility.
All this changes, however, when Henry cavalierly appoints Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury, figuring this will put the Church conveniently in his flask pocket. But Becket, now in service to a different Lord, takes the appointment as seriously as he took his service to the King. His new master, of course, has a rather more elevated moral code, and Becket feels bound to honor it above his loyalty to his old friend. Strife and tragedy result, and are told in flashback from after Becket’s death. His religious loyalty becomes “a cumbersome thing,” as he himself laments in Becket, or The Honor of God, a tragedy of 12th-century England by the modern French playwright Jean Anouilh. It receives a taut, riveting ensemble production by Phylloxera Productions at the Players’ Ring, under the excellent direction of Gary Locke.
The rapport and opposition of Henry — a royal and a member of the conquering Norman people — and Becket — an lower-class upstart and a member of the indigenous, conquered Saxons — is vital to the pulse of the show, and Locke’s casting of Schofield and Harris is superb. In their characters’ younger days, before God comes between them, Schofield laughs through a loose, louche mouth, and sprawls and swaggers with the utterly unaffected ease of having known naught but privilege. His gaze at his friend, as they adventure, is open, Dionysian, and guilelessly affectionate. The quick eyes and efficient movements of Harris’s Becket, on the other hand, betray a restless, acute consciousness, a mind always preoccupied with complexities and implications. But there remains a disconnect between Becket’s understanding and his capacity for affection — for love — and Harris not only nails this quality, but allows glimpses of Becket’s own wistful awareness of it.
In the fraught aftermath of Becket’s appointment as Archbishop, both men shift dramatically in movement and mood. The King, bereft of a playmate, opens the second act playing petulantly with a ball-and-cup toy — and never winning at it. Schofield gives the abandoned Henry not just the pout, slouch, and irritable hurt of a spurned child, but also the reluctant, bitter acuity of a man who has grown up too quickly to the real nature of things. It is a rich transformation. And as for Becket, with Harris’s heavenward gaze and new ardor, he now seems a man tethered precariously between heaven and earth, as if half-prone to vault up and away. It plays beautifully against Schofield’s diminished, leaden, earth-bound slump.