Paul Webb’s historical comedy has, in the past, been pitched as a kind of bawdy, Tarantino-esque take on A Murder In The Cathedral, an unholy alliance between Reservoir Dogs and Blackadder. But, though an ear does get separated from its owner at one point in the play, its resemblance to the work of the infamous former video-store clerk is minimal. In fact, underneath the excess of references to bodily fluids, there lies a rather considered piece of theatre.
Four Nights In Knaresborough tells the story of William de Traci, Richard le Bret, Reginald Fitzwilliam and Hugh de Moreville, the four assassins of Thomas Becket. Little is known about these individuals, these men of some standing who, in 1170, walked into Canterbury Cathedral and committed the “worst career move in history.” Whether God or the King was the driving force behind their actions is not recorded, but as a result of their crime the men spent the following year holed up in Knaresborough Castle. Premiering at the Tricycle theatre in 1999, and soon to be made into a film, Webb’s play attempts to unravel what may have gone on within those thick stone walls.
An atmospheric opening depicts the Archbishop’s murder before the action switches to the castle itself: a suitably spare set complete with flagstones on the floor and a fire flickering away. Beset by cruel winter nights, lack of food and rotting teeth, the four soon start to question the validity of their act. Morville remains convinced Becket’s death was necessary, but not everyone is so sure. Matters are complicated by the unvoiced desire that exists between some of the men: Fitz has a thing for Traci, and Traci in turn is drawn to Brito. The younger man’s attentions are, however, taken up solely with the lone woman in their midst: Catherine (played with some grace by Juliet Howland) is an intelligent young widow who keeps the villagers at bay by ensuring them that her tenants are seeking penance through a constant cycle of fasting and prayer.
If this doesn’t sound much like the dramatic concoction described above, then that’s a valid observation. Webb’s play is an uneasy medley of the crude and the cerebral; in fact, the first half is peppered with so many references to shitting and wanking that it soon becomes tiresome.
As the characters become more established things pick up considerably. Ken Bradshaw, as the philosophical, educated Traci leaves by far the strongest impression; his love for the younger Brito is plausibly, tenderly played. Piers Ronan plays the cocky young Brito with a laddish amiability and, in the role of the volatile Fitz, Peter Hugo-Daly appears to have opted to base his performance on Alan Rickman in his Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves mode – an approach that grates as much as it amuses.
The production could have been far tauter, it’s overlong and not always as funny as it thinks it is. The play could definitely stand to jettison some of its earlier, cruder passages; the humour value of Brito debating the frequency and quality of his erections is limited, especially when Webb has shown himself to be capable of creating scenes of high tension and real emotion.
12th Century England was not a great place to be and Webb’s writing successfully conveys this without revelling in the unpleasantness. When the four men debate their loves and their losses, the nature of their faith in God, the play delivers some very compelling exchanges. But it’s as if Webb lacked the confidence that such scenes would be enough; his reliance on blokey banter and constipation gags does his writing a disservice.
Complex and very frustrating, but buoyed by a number of strong performances, Four Nights is a reasonably intelligent piece of drama, struggling to be something it isn’t.