Thomas Becket, we’re told, “never stops thinking,” so it’s somewhat troubling to have an actor in the part who doesn’t exactly suggest thought. Onscreen, Scottish thesp Dougray Scott has lent a brooding charisma to films like “Mission: Impossible 2.” But the “Enigma” star makes an aloof (or, putting it politely, enigmatic) and recessive stage presence who doesn’t begin to anchor the latest West End revival — the second in 13 years — of the 1959 Jean Anouilh play named for his character.
On the other hand, woe betide any actor ill-equipped to hold his own with Jasper Britton, whose Henry Plantagenet steals a production in which only the eponymous figure — the “man of the cloth,” Becket — emerges as a crashing bore.
John Caird’s handsomely appointed staging is in some ways a more elegant and robust affair than the Robert Lindsay/Derek Jacobi starrer from 1991, and any sense of a suffocating history lesson is quickly dispelled by a new version of the script — from the father-son team of Frederic and Stephen Raphael — that, if anything, is brisk to a rather rabid fault.
Visually, too, the evening is seductive: Stephen Brimson Lewis’s costumes make gorgeous use of gray and silver, while his vaulted set doesn’t deliver too oppressive a visual metaphor of the play’s religious backdrop.
But it’s not just because of the ongoing shift in U.S. politics that one might expect Anouilh’s slab of historical near-sensationalism to resonate in some way with a time in which, once again, church and state simply won’t be kept apart. Instead, the play pays lip service to a thematic grandiosity that turns out to be tenuous indeed: Not for the first time, “Becket” exists primarily as an actors’ showcase that stands or falls on the duo at its center.
The 1991 production played up the implicit homoeroticism of a scenario in which the anguished Henry is all but pierced to the core by the deacon-turned-archbishop, Becket, whose primary devotion is to God. This time around, the issue is less one of sublimated sexual desire than of the masculinity (or lack thereof) of a ruler who announces late on, “I’m the king, and I’m a girl.” (The outburst might be a bit subtler if Britton weren’t clutching his crotch as he says the line.)
Britton’s great achievement is to animate at every turn the fissures tearing away at a leader whose ability to raise an army against France pales next to the psychological self-flagellation on which he is ruinously embarked.
From our first glimpse of Henry hunched and naked, a monarch as fallen as he is frightened, Britton takes over a play which is about temptation, though I’m not sure even Mel Gibson would approve a closing tableau comparing the doomed — and, in Scott’s reading of him, rather dull — Becket to Christ.