Henry I of England is a production by Reading Between the Lines theatre company staged at St James’ Catholic Church in Reading, 2-19 November 2016. This Shakespearean play is both an entertaining history (and tragedy and comedy) from our past and a compelling critique of our present. It deserves to be a modern classic for our times.
Henry I of England runs for another week until 19th November and I would urge you to go and see it for an entertaining and memorable night out showcasing Reading’s history and creativity.
Warning – contains spoilers! Do not read if you want to see the play fresh and remain in the dark about how it unfolds before you see it (though it is a history so I’m not really giving away the ending)
History is always anachronistic, being of a time, of its time and of our time whenever it is told. This fine history was no different, reaching back in time to tell the story of a Norman medieval king who lies buried beneath the ruins of Reading abbey but being very contemporary in its production and its ideas (for one performance the characters took to Twitter) and being performed just days after another global shock to the body politic. It tells a story of power relations across Europe and between genders as difficult and precarious now as it was in the 11th century. As you watch you are transported into a moment that is both then and now; them and us. You appreciate how art enriches us and its fundamental importance to understanding our lives and worlds. Each scene is a vignette, a moment extracted out of time but into which significance is compressed and conveyed through dialogue, soliloquy, sound and motion.
The play is being staged as close as possible to the burial place of Henry I, beneath the magnificent abbey he built rising up into the sky towards God at a place where two roads meet and a ford crosses the river. Whilst staging a play in church probably poses some physical, and perhaps meta-physical and philosophical, challenges it was also an evocative choice that added to the experience as saints and kings peered over us from illuminated windows and actors ghosted along cloisters, and through us, the dark, silent masses, to emerge upon the stage of elites and rulers, the power players with agency. The crew made the most of this rich setting with some really creative lighting and an atmospheric soundtrack that augmented the acting superbly and helped with some deft shifts of place and tone.
For this is not just a history; it was also a tragedy and a comedy as likely to arouse laughter as pathos. Adam Venus as William Rufus was particularly amusing, fully delighting in his licence to play up the camp menace of his court. As we talk of post-truth politics his delight in falsehood and rumour, the more extravagant the better, was topical. He punctuated each outrageous claim with the word “Fact” at the end, his raised eyebrow indicating he was fully aware that is wasn’t and daring anyone to be impertinent enough to challenge his power to turn the ridiculous into fashionable truth.
Indeed doublethink permeates the play, particular the idea that war is peace and that the means justify the end when justifying violence and warfare, something insisted on by the brothers but assertively dismissed by sister Adela who points out she’s managed to govern Blois quite well without recourse to war for 23 years. There is also much wry humour in the many moment Adela and Edith assert the capabilities and competencies of women in retort to the casual sexism of their husbands and brothers by pointing out their effectiveness as statesmen and administrators whilst pushing entire human beings through a hole the size of a small coin. Agnes and Mabel are not so fortunate their lot is to represent the brutal and violent subjugation of women by men. The tragedy for all, is that the men find it so hard to find any language other than violence to express themselves, unite their kingdoms and define their lives and their rule.
However much Henry resists this with his attempts at fair and competent administration, he cannot help but succumb eventually to unspeakable acts. However dark recent days seem, we are reminded that in centuries past all these tensions within the body politic literally centred on the very human and fragile body of one person. We cannot imagine the stress this places on the physical and mental health of that person and Henry revels in his very existence as proof that he is enacting God’s will even as he begins to weaken and repent at the cost. By the end these struggles are made manifest by horrendous violence to families and innocent children: the very private cost of public choices. In a very Lear-ish turn Henry is faced with the consequences of his actions and the politics of governance, familial love and succession are played out agonisingly. Henry falls into a self-pitying grief but not before anointing his daughter Matilda as his heir who emerges to conclude the play as an ethereal, redemptive presence rather than a queen in a tricky and unprecedented role.
These many twists and turns, from levity to cruelty and a large chunk of history in between, are carried well by a versatile company and inventive direction. The acting was good throughout with Toby Davies as a commanding Henry with a hint of vulnerability and superb supporting contributions from a talented young company who brought subtlety, variety and wit to their roles. Also worth a mention is movement director Gareth Taylor who choreographed a physical language that wonderfully complement the words of Beth Flintoff with some more visceral scenes that took us into the midst of battles and burning cities, up onto citadel ramparts, out on a stag hunt, through woods and a memorable sea voyage.
Henry I of England is part of Reading’s year of culture 2016 bringing a fresh injection of creative vitality to our vibrant town. It was great to see such a visionary local company commissioning new work and encouraging young artistic talent whilst exploring local history. Along with Inside: Writers and Artists at Reading Jail, it’s been wonderful this autumn to be able to experience such creative perspectives on our history and place woven into the imaginative and physical fabric of the town. More please.