Review: Henry I, Reading Abbey Ruins

Full of historical resonance and theatrical thrill, Rabble Theatre’s Henry I is excellently done in Reading Abbey Ruins

“What life could a third son expect?”

I coulda been a medieval historian you know. I studied and loved it at A-Level but an open day visit to St Andrews left me in no doubt that academic dress was not the one, plus I wanted to live in a city so Glasgow and Economic and Social History it was. Memories of the Normans and the Angevins might not stack up to pub quiz duty these days but the notion of seeing a play about Henry I in the very place where his body is buried was hard to resist (and it turned out I remembered a little more than I thought!).

Thus the ruins of Reading Abbey inevitably prove a highly atmospheric setting for Beth Flintoff’s Henry I, a vibrant look at the dynastic struggles of the children of William the Conqueror. Eldest son Robert took the prize of the Duchy of Normandy, William Rufus the throne of England to become William II and Henry…well, as the third remaining son, he got nary but a pat on the head. All were frustrated by this turn of events but as fraternal squabbling turned into something more serious, fate (and a wayward hunting arrow) set Henry on a new anointed path.

Medieval sources being what they are means that a writer has a measure more of flexibility with this kind of history play, there’s much less audience expectation of how this king ‘should’ be. Flintoff imagines Henry as the kind of man who considers himself decent and is capable of that decency but nevertheless has a core of steel that is ruthless in the extreme. Toby W Davies captures these contradictions well, ready with a twinkle in his eye to seduce or charm, though always calculating how to maximise opportunities, even as they push him to tragic consequences.

What is particularly pleasing about Flintoff’s writing here is her determination to include a fully realised world for the women in this story too, so often neglected in this period. So we also meet Adela, Countess of Blois, William the Conqueror’s youngest daughter and Henry’s closest sibling, a fascinating figure in her own right who outlived her brothers (and was probably a more effective ruler than any of them). Similarly, Henry’s wife Edith is given her own agency and intelligence through Georgie Fellows’ quick-witted performance and Henry’s illegitimate daughter Juliana of Breteuil is ferociously good in the hands of Anjelica Serra.

Just as significant is Hal Chambers’ direction, emphasising the truly egalitarian ensemble nature of the production. Someone might be a king in one scene, a serving wench in the next but such is the clarity of the dynamic through-flow you never once question it. Gareth Taylor’s movement direction is crucial here too, allowing for moments of real visual grace to break up the script, the one-to-one combat scenes also impress with some notable swordplay courtesy of Dani Davies. Sarah Jane Booth’s costume work also stands up so well to close scrutiny, some luscious drapery going on but hints of contemporary design adding to the feel of a play speaking to now as much as then.

A postscript offers a properly spine-shivering moment to reflect on the intersection of drama and history. Having witnessed the actions of a life that led Henry to found Reading Abbey in search of salvation, it is hard not to be deeply moved. It is also hard not to be deeply impressed by the quality of this production for all the reasons above and more besides – the haunting music, the curly shoes (Gabrielle Sheppard’s William Rufus is a scene-stealing delight), the curses, the sliding, the bedknobs (no broomsticks though…). Henry I will visit Winchester and London but for impact, get thee to Reading.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Alex Brenner
Henry I is booking at Reading Abbey Ruins until 1st July, Winchester Great Hall 12th-15th July and The Actor’s Church, Covent Garden 20th-22nd July

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