Monday, 15 October 2018

REVIEW: Henry II at the Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin, Reading

Henry II is the third of Beth Flintoff's Conquerors trilogy for Reading Between the Lines (RBL) set about the time of the building and consecration of Reading Abbey (1120 to 1164). I missed the first two instalments, Henry I of England and Matilda the Empress, so was unfamiliar with the style and story to date. She has taken real historical figures and even some snatches of dialogue from contemporary accounts and fashioned a period set play in period costumes but with a modern feeling script and including some lively folk music by Luke Potter. It is at times a curious mix and some of the writing, especially in the overlong first act, feels like it needs another draft or two to refine and sharpen the dialogue. Staged in the Reading Minister the pews did begin to feel uncomfortable even with the cushion hired before the interval. However the whole production takes off in the second half as the various story strands are drawn together and the Director Hal Chambers makes better use of the space. 

The historical storylines are based around the deteriorating relationship between Henry and his powerful wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, the sudden change in his relationship with Thomas Beckett after he becomes Archbishop of Canterbury and the development of troubadour's, musical poets who sang about consensual love. We are shown the contrasts in Beckett behaviour in Act 1 with a slightly bizarre song and dance about his days as a drunk with Henry and in opening of Act 2 as the pious serious Archbishop in a self flagellation scene. With the troubadours we see in Act 1 a rather dull explanation of the principles of Troubadour poetry but in Act 2 we get a powerful well grouped scene at King's banquet where they fall under the troubadours spell in a test of Henry and Eleanor's relationship when he sings" here lies my heart my love ". 

The nave of Reading minister makes a good setting for the drama with the large arch lit in blues and reds but the raised stage, necessary for sight lines, also makes entrances and exits less fluid and the constant moving of stone coloured cubes slows the action even though attempts are made to cover the scene change. The episodic nature of the writing means some scenes seem shorter than the scene change! 

What makes the show work and engage the audience is the strong female characters with an excellent Annabelle Brown as Eleanor capturing her power and insecurity, Bethan Mary-James as Marie who really shines in the second half as her true identity is revealed and by RBL producer Dani Davies as the ageing Matilda, Henry's mother. She brings a moving regal strength to her portrayal in the crucial Banquet scene. In a world where marriages are arranged and affairs seems to be common place , Flintoff gives us three characters constrained by the society but trying to influence and change it from their position in the court.

The men become more crude caricatures. Henry, Mark Middleton, is a unbending
autocratic ruler. Beckett, Toby Davies, the unflinting unmovable cleric. Much of the comedic moments are delivered by Dominic Allen as Gerald the loyal cleric obsessed with Beavers and Yanick Ghanty as the flatulist entertainer. It is difficult to find sympathy for their unbending attitudes.

This is a production with a strong local appeal with plenty of local references and firmly set in Reading. It is always a delight to see site specific plays and the setting of this one sets the tone as you enter the Minster through the tower entrance . We do learn about a less known period of English history and the fascinating character of Eleanor. RBL deserves to succeed in its Endeavour telling stories like this on site but on this occasion it needed thirty minutes trimmed and some redrafting of the early scenes.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: stalls row C | Price of Ticket: £22
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