Matilda the Empress from Reading Between the Lines review

Claire Slobodian
Matilda the Empress

Reading Between the Lines brings our town and the role of women to the forefront of English history with this powerful tale of King Henry I’s daughter Matilda, staged in Reading’s iconic St James’ Church.

If our town has a community that challenges the pesky notion that Reading is a cultural blackhole, it’s surely Reading Between the Lines, who present their latest theatre production at St James’ Church this month. Their productions bring professional-quality drama to iconic locations and shine a spotlight on Reading’s role in some of the most fascinating, and forgotten, periods of England’s history.

Matilda the Empress follows on from last year’s Reading Culture Award-winning Henry I of England. An ambitious, powerful piece, it followed the reign of William the Conqueror’s fourth son Henry, who commissioned Reading Abbey and is believed to be buried below St James’ Church.

This time, the play from writer Beth Flintoff picks up where we left off. Henry’s daughter Matilda has been named his rightful heir following the sudden death of her brother in the sinking of the White Ship. Summoned home from Germany, now a widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, Matilda is strategic, intelligent and a proven ruler. But as a woman, her ability to reign is demeaned by her need to show obedience to her new husband and focus on producing a male heir.

After Henry’s death, the throne is challenged by her cousin Stephen, setting off a ferocious, 15-year-long civil war across England, known in history as The Anarchy. Matilda never became Queen of England.

The play follows this battle for the crown in a plot that is, like the war, often frenzied and occasionally uncertain, but always engaging and surprisingly modern.

Dani McCallum as Matilda the Empress

Playwright Beth Flintoff was frustrated with the lack of female stories presented from the Norman period so at the core of her play are the lives of three strong, well-written women, lifted from ‘the dustbowl of history’.

Matilda the Empress takes top billing of course, and as Matilda, Dani McCallum is formidable; strong, sharp and forceful, but with a vulnerable core. Although small in frame, she manages to tower and take up space as the ‘bloody difficult woman’ fighting to be respected in a male dominated court. Matilda’s story may be nearly 1000 years old, but as the programme’s references to Hillary Clinton and the lack of female world leaders remind us, the struggle to lead as a woman is far from behind us.

In contrast to the Empress, Georgina Strawson as Matilda of Boulogne, or ‘Tildy’, the wife of King Stephen the challenger is a much more delicate, simpering and ‘traditional’ female character. Nevertheless we come to see her as powerful in her own way, nudging her husband’s behaviour toward her goals, slyly encouraging him into rebellion with intelligent charm, smiles and a soft voice.

Georgina Strawson as Matilda of Boulogne

The third woman in this historical trifecta is Emma (Elizabeth Carter), a fictional creation representing the ordinary people of England and the suffering The Anarchy wrought on their lives. Whether historically accurate or not, her warm flirtation and loving marriage to Abbey master builder Alfric (Edward M. Corrie) is a world away from the manipulative arranged relationships in the royal court. The pair’s helplessness and pain at the eventual outcome of the war is heartbreaking and makes for some of the play’s most tender scenes.

Their storyline also ties us back to Reading. Alfric’s pride at building ‘the tallest spire in Europe’ reminds us of the strong history under our feet and the importance of the building of the Abbey in making Reading the large town it is today.

Edward M. Corrie as Alfric and Elizabeth Carter as Emma

Also notable is Jak Ford-Lang as Matilda’s 15-year-old second husband Geoffrey Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou. He oozes spite, selfishness and malice, making the night of their forced wedding genuinely disturbing. His later, softer scenes with their son show just how accomplished an acting feat that is.

Marking the passing years, we are also presented with an older, grumpier King Henry. Company director Toby Davies steps aside and the role is picked up by Michael Fenner, who ably channels a domineering, frequently crotchety ruler, offset with a sadness that he hasn’t been able to fulfill his duty of producing a male heir to be king.

Michael Fenner as King Henry I

In many ways, Henry I was a masculine play about a king with an impressive ego. The set portrayed that with a single stage flanked by a bombastic bank of floodlights, reportedly inspired by the Glastonbury set of Kanye West (the ego-in-chief).

In contrast, staging for Matilda is simpler, stripped-back and divided. The action plays out in the long, narrow space of the church aisle, with a stage at each end and chairs turned into the middle. It separates the cast during times of war, but also makes the most of the beautiful, historic stone space, allowing the audience to imagine the characters in a castle setting.

While the multiple stages occasionally give us the feel of watching a tennis match – our heads ping pong from one end of the church to the other as we hang on every action and reaction – the central staging really pays off in large scale set pieces.

During the battles, the cast emerge from all sides, surrounding the audience, moving at unexpected speeds and on unpredictable routes. It’s momentarily disconcerting, our necks swivel to keep up, not sure where to look next or where the action will move. It’s a simple, yet inspired choice from director Hal Chambers that engulfs the audience in that sense of chaos that must have been The Anarchy.

That uncertainty is bolstered by deep, trembling electronic sound design from composers Rosalind Steele and Benjamin Hudson, which fills the cavernous church space with its foreboding, enthralling notes echoing off the stone walls.

Reading Between the Lines have again produced an innovative, thought-provoking piece of theatre honouring our town’s history and our local community. Matilda the Empress is an impressive and commanding play that demands an audience. Go and be one of them. You won’t be able to say there’s no culture in Reading again.

Matilda the Empress runs Thursday 2 – Saturday 18 November | 7.30pm, 2.30pm matinee | St James’ Church, Abbot’s Walk | £20, £16 (concessions) | Book online

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