We’re more or less in traverse between the squat Doric pillars of Canterbury Cathedral Crypt with most of the lighting coming from hundreds of candles on cylindrical racks beneath the low fan vaulting. Then the hushed audience hears the distant sound of ecclesiastical Latin singing and the incense wafts past. We are transported back hundreds of years at a stroke. Welcome to the atmospheric world the Marlowe Theatre’s Andy Dixon and his cast from Fourth Monkey Theatre Company have created for the second of three plays in the rep season at Canterbury to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Christopher Marlowe’s birth.
Unlike anything Shakespeare wrote, this play is truly contemporary because it depicts the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots by Catholics inFrancein 1572 which Marlowe may well have witnessed. There’s a great deal of killing, screaming, weeping and sinister lurking in shadows – obviously – and the play is unrepentantly anti-Catholic which is why is appealed, of course, to late Elizabethan theatre goers. Dixon and his team, however, bring out the workings of hatred and feud in general in their version rather than dwelling too much on specific sectarianism. The result is that you leave the theatrical crypt comparing it with all the inter-group brutality we’re seen in recent years and reflecting ruefully on how little has changed.
Reuben Beau Davies exudes glittering, charismatic evil and ‘haughty insolence’ as the Duke of Guise, the main perpetrator of the persecution. He smoulderingly twitches his nose and menacingly swings his crucifix as he ruthlessly and determinedly orders more and more deaths. It is a magnificent and scrupulously well judged performance especially in the final speech as, fatally wounded, he wriggles across the floor still dominating everyone around him. There is also some enjoyably strong work from Dan Chrisostomou as Henry of Navarre who inherits the French crown, grows into his kingship, sees Guise despatched and then gradually becomes a manic tyrant. It’s a predominantly female cast so most of the assassins and other ensemble parts are played by women but it works well. And it’s a large scale piece using 24 actors.
There are some fine costumes in this production and the use of percussion instruments played by ensemble members, mostly positioned behind the audience, is a simple but effective way of creating immersive sound effects.Dixonhas also built in some choric work – repeated clicking sounds from groups of killers, for instance – which help build tension.
Played without interval and running just two hours, this is intense but enjoyable and satisfying theatre which makes a fine job of clear story telling for audiences, most of whom will not be familiar with the play.