Thursday, 25 April 2019

Ambitious new play in church beats the theatre hands down

Ambitious new play in church beats the theatre hands down

Henry II | Reading Minster Church of St Mary the Virgin | Wednesday, October 10

HAL Chambers’s ambitious production of Beth Flintoff’s Henry II in the unique setting of this ancient church is so enthralling that it makes watching a play in a theatre seem like a dull idea!

The year is 1164 and King Henry is coming to Reading for the dedication of Reading Abbey, so the sense of place is very strong and the mood is exuberant from the start.

As a warm-up, the cast mingled amiably with an expectant audience, to steer us from the 21st century into a medieval mindset.

We enjoyed music and clapping, the brandishing of swords and the display of chain mail.

Gazing at the magnificent east window and the altar was a physical reminder of the intersection of church and state in 12th century England. All credit to the production team for very polished lighting and sound in such an unusual space.

The audience enjoys an insight into a happy marriage between affable Henry II (Mark Middleton) and his imperious, cultivated queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Annabelle Brown).

We are made aware of the potential collision of personal and political at the heart of marriages amongst high-born families in medieval Europe. However, Middleton and Brown’s good-humoured flirting makes it easy for the audience to see that Henry and Eleanor have a genuine love match.

The romance between Henry and Eleanor is mirrored by the burgeoning love affair between Eleanor’s daughter Marie (Bethan Mary-James) and low-born wannabe troubadour Bart (Oliver Hoare).

Lively Marie coaches inept Bart in performance art and affection grows, but their union is not to be — Marie is destined to marry a wealthy suitor of her own social rank.

But where there is love, there is also conflict. Henry and Eleanor’s relationship deteriorates and early in the play there is a flash-forward to a time when the couple are no longer in love.

Henry goes on to imprison his wife for her betrayal, together with her companion Amaria (Sarah Goddard).

Henry also falls out with Thomas Becket, played with gravitas by Toby Davies. Once firm friends, Henry is unable to accept the sincere religious demeanour adopted by Becket, while for his part Becket is unable to tolerate the king’s resistance to the idea that the clergy are answerable only to God.

The history books tell us that this power struggle doesn’t end well, and in this production Middleton and Davies convincingly convey a warm friendship and the subsequent, inevitable hostility.

It’s not all love and fighting, though — there’s comedy too, largely carried by Yanick Ghanty as both aide Jocelin and Roland the flatulist, and by Dominic Allen as the garrulous Gerald.

The energetic ensemble added yet more good humour and also contributed to the music and song which is such a strong feature of the production.

Luke Potter’s compositions reflect Eleanor’s thirst for the French culture she left behind, by channelling the troubadour tradition.

The cast plays a whole range of instruments. The set-piece song Here Lies My Heart moved the characters to tears, and no doubt the audience too.

Beth Flintoff’s well-crafted script is brought to life in this spectacular and memorable production, which runs until Saturday, October 27. For tickets and times, visit www.reading

Susan Creed

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