On the dark steps of Canterbury Cathedral, Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights apparently under instruction from Henry II. The men were left without praise or explanation, and history can only guess as to their thoughts and actions following this major event in 1170. Paul Webb speculates about the lives of these knights as they flee to a Yorkshire castle when the people of England turn against them; Four Nights in Knaresborough follows them over the course of a year and endeavours to unravel the mystery surrounding possibly the most famous assassins in England in a comedic yet contemplative way.

Directed by Seb Billings, this show expresses itself with modern turn of phrase, which helps the audience relate without making it seem cheap or farcical. As a political thriller, Four Nights has more heart than one would expect, asking the big questions and placing its characters in challenging situations whilst returning at times to light-hearted banter. As usual, Southwark Playhouse creates an atmosphere as soon as you walk in; smoke and candles create an eerie sensation for the audience as the actors are often left in shadow, giving the impression that we are really intruding on the lives of these people trapped by their deeds. There is something so raw about this venue that makes pieces like this come alive – the exposed lighting rigs do not detract from the medieval setting, but rather bring it into the twenty-first century in a subtle way, giving it a relevance that almost goes unnoticed.

The six actors work well together, with certain strong characters pulling up those who may otherwise have fallen behind. Tom Greaves plays the brash and crude Brito, exposing the lust that was undoubtedly a part of soldier’s daily lives; however he is not solely a lout spurred on by his crotch – Greaves recognises the deeper side to Brito and the tenderness he is capable of feeling towards the other men in the most enclosed environments. The domineering Fitz was captured by Alex Hughes in a chillingly maniacal way only to explode in emotion in his Act 2 monologue – a moment that very nearly had me in tears as we find the man behind the beast. Twinnielee Moore, as the only female in the cast, does extraordinarily well to hold her ground as Catherine next to five very commanding characters; she is sarcastic, but from her first appearance we get an understanding that there is more to her than she will willingly let on and we warm to her as the play progresses. The character of Morville was taken on by Lee Williams – a quiet and passive man, Morville is the one who lends his castle to the four knights and appears to be the least involved in the Becket incident. However, Williams tended to draw out his lines, making them breathy and overdramatic which was a little hard to follow. Yet the cast (completed by Tony Boncza and David Sturzaker) present the tale of the knights with genuine human understanding, aided by tongue-in-cheek text. A rather graphic piece of amateur dentistry has you laughing and gasping, as does an unusual bath scene, not to mention Becket affectionately referred to as a “fuckwit” by none other than Brito. These help the audience to fully engage in the play, without archaic language hindering or taking away from what is, at its heart, the story of friends dealing with crisis.

The set is simple and enhanced by the dull lighting and smoking fireplace; however scene transitions were accompanied by loud music whose lyrics, though sometimes relevant to the story, were unnecessary. Although this did do something to emphasise the message of Henry’s uncertain policies and the devout way the knights followed him, as well as give the production an edge similar to some TV shows, their volume and abrupt endings were somewhat jarring and a great contrast to the dingy flow of the play.

Despite a few flaws, Four Nights in Knaresborough is a piece of historical drama that captures its audiences by including them in its secrets. Rather than watch some distant tale of knights seeking shelter, we share in their thoughts and fears, discover the concealed homosexuality that was most likely a common thing among the ranks of the king’s men, and explore the same existential issues these people may have experienced holed up in the depths of the moors. Without seeming intellectual or overly philosophical, this play is something more than just a telling of politics or comedic parody. It’ll have you laughing, cringing and thinking in ways you didn’t expect with a peek into twelfth century ‘normality’.