By Gillie Tunley and Adam Harrington.
The theatre company Reading Between the Lines (RBL) present the final instalment of their Conquerors trilogy, Henry II, in the thrillingly atmospheric St Mary’s Minster, Reading, until Saturday October 27. It is the story of love and power; love between a husband and wife, a King and his former drinking buddy, and a Welsh monk and a beaver.
Henry II, tautly crafted by writer Beth Flintoff and directed by Hal Chambers, is set during a royal family gathering in Easter 1164 at the consecration of Reading Abbey by the King’s newly minted Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.
The play opens on an instantly engaging crowd of raucous musicians who emerge from the swirling mist of the minster’s quire. God’s appointed king, the blustering and boisterous Henry (a multi-layered and mesmeric performance by Mark Middleton) is an intelligent and energetic warlord. He becomes increasingly angry as his political creation, the morally tortured Thomas Becket (powerfully played by Toby W Davies), starts taking his role as Archbishop more seriously than the King ever expected.
Video (c) Dani Davies / RBL via Youtube.
Henry also has problems with his imperious and commanding wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (played by the magnificent Annabelle Brown), a politically powerful woman famous for her highly cultured court of love back in Poitiers. She is impressed neither with Reading nor the King’s will, God-appointed or not.
It’s not all high drama; the loquacious Welsh monk Gerald (played with obsequious humour by Dominic Allen) regularly digresses onto the subject of beavers and Roland the Flatulist (played with gleeful crudity by Yanick Ghanty) subdues the monk during a scuffle by fragantly farting on him. When the King plans to marry off one of his sons to a “looker”, Eleanor protests “but she’s just a baby!” “You can tell by the time they walk,” replies the King.
A budding and awkward romance between troubadours, the accomplished Marie (the fabulous Bethan Mary-James) and the enthusiastic but clumsy Bart of Reading (irresistibly played by Oliver Hoare), contrasts with the mix of violence, passive-aggression and pleading that comprises the political marriage of the King and Queen. The captivating romance of Marie and Bart climaxes in the melting harmonies of a duet (composed by Luke Potter) during a royal feast, a duet which needs to be explained to the brutally literal King.
After a soaring choral finale, the King opens the Abbey and proclaims “a new era of wisdom, humanity and love!”
Thomas Becket was murdered six years later.
This is a spectacular and entertaining evening which transforms Reading’s minster itself into a court of love. It is a big gothic space, but the ensemble and their music fill it with twelfth century humanity.
The play runs for two and a half hours at the Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin, Chain Steet, Reading RG1 2HX. It has an interval during which refreshments can be purchased, and runs every evening (and some matinées) until Saturday 27 October. Tickets can be booked online, and you may want to bring your own cushion, although cushions can be rented there.