HENRY I at Reading Abbey Ruins
“a stand-out exemplar for other locally-rooted companies wishing to make drama that speaks compellingly to their audiences”
When Game of Thrones and other big budget spectaculars grab the headlines and audiences, how can 900 year old stories be brought to the stage in a way that will speak to modern audiences? This is the challenge with which Reading based company Rabble have been engaged since their founding in 2012.
This latest production is their biggest yet. Based on a show that premiered in 2016, it follows the life of King Henry I of England from the moment his father William the Conqueror died in 1087, to his own death 48 years later. This is raw and visceral theatre. The writing is not cod historical but vivid and gripping.
Eleventh century lives were short and men’s war-making was brutal. But this play is also feminist to its core, placing women at its heart, both in casting women actors in male roles and in depicting the pivotal roles women played in the story.
Rabble’s vision is also community-based and often site specific. Over 500 members of the local community were involved in bringing this epic to the stage. It sits in a sequence of linked history plays the company have developed. They appear amongst the professionals in the show and continue to be involved in workshops around the play which tours to Winchester and the Actor’s Church in London after its Reading run. In Reading it is performed in the ruins of the great abbey Henry I built to expiate his memory, and where he lies buried. There’s a further frisson. The final scene is performed on the very spot where the events depicted occurred.
Beth Flintoff’s Henry I uses a rich variety of story-telling techniques to bring a great swathe of history to dazzling life. Characters speak directly to their audience about their future. Climactic crowd scenes play out in slow motion with compelling lighting effects by designer Michael Brenkley. Many of the costumes by Sarah Jane Booth are a lush riot of satin and velvet and her spare set suits the full-on and physical drama to a tee.
Amongst an outstanding cast, Toby W Davies is excellent as Henry I. Whilst some other characters occasionally veer close to parody, he gives a compellingly real performance of vulnerability and struggle amongst all the rabble-rousing. Georgie Fellows is his queen and Mabel. Like the exceptional Amy Conachan (Adela Countess of Blois), she gives a blisteringly feisty performance of a woman at the heart of the action.
Greg Barnett is a wonderful embodiment of lip-smacking evil as Robert de Belleme. Mark Middleton is a peevishly inadequate brother to Henry and has some moments of fine comedy. Gabrielle Sheppard cuts a swaggering dash as William Rufus and William Atheling. Anjelica Serra gives an equally energetic and compelling performance in this high octane show that delighted the first night crowd. Joseph Black has huge stage presence as Bishop Roger and Conran.
Many other performers give wonderfully energetic and committed performances in this brilliant show which is a warmly recommended triumph for Rabble. It is also a stand-out exemplar for other locally-rooted companies wishing to make drama that speaks compellingly to their audiences. Congratulations to Director Hal Chambers for bringing this production to such electrifying life.
Reviewed on 15th June 2023
by David Woodward
Photography by Alex Brenner
12th – 15th July 2023
Winchester Great Hall, Winchester
20th – 22nd July 2023
St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, London
Previously reviewed by David: