Matilda the Empress at St James’ Church

Lighting of the church porch

There really was a buzz of excitement and expectation around the eagerly awaited opening night of Matilda the Empress. A queue had formed outside St James’ Church on the chilly evening well before the official door opening time 7pm.

Reading Between the Lines (RBL) theatre company’s sequel to Henry I of England focusses on the life of women and the ordinary people of the past whose stories are less well represented in historical accounts. In the words of writer Beth Flintoff:

…all along, there have been countless stories of remarkable women sitting in the dustbowl of history, waiting for someone to brush them off. Matilda is one such gem…

Emma and Alfric’s story represents the terrible suffering of ordinary people that the civil war inflicted.

After Henry’s death there was civil war in England, often referred to as the anarchy of King Stephen’s reign. Troops loyal to the two contestants for the throne criss-crossed the country; they built and besieged castles and caused chaos to the life of local communities. Stephen built a castle somewhere in Reading but its location is unknown and it may only have been a temporary structure.

The war ended with the Treaty of Wallingford in 1153 in which Matilda’s son Henry was accepted as the heir to King Stephen.

Wallingford Castle – Brian FitzCount’s stronghold

The female characters in the play, Matilda the Empress, Matilda of Boulogne (the wife of King Stephen) and Emma, are powerful and strongly written parts. Their male partners and other protagonists are dealt a weaker but no less well-written hand.

It is inevitable to make some comparison with Henry I, but it is clear that this new play is meant to stand on its own two feet. Henry’s story up to his death and burial is recounted through his interactions with Matilda and Stephen.

Burial of King Henry I at Reading Abbey in January 1136 – Oil on canvas by Harry Morley (1916) ©Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)

The lead role of the Empress was played by Dani McCallum, familiar to audiences of Henry I, but Henry himself (Michael Fenner) and all other roles were played by an entirely new cast. Reading people Emma and Alfric were played by Elizabeth Crarer and Edward M. Corrie.

The staging also makes a break from the earlier production with two raised platforms at each end of a performance space in the nave of the church. The audience sits on both sides of the nave facing the action, which was sometimes like watching a tennis match.

Modern, electronic and subtle music from Benjamin Hudson and Rosalind Steele provided an atmospheric soundtrack. The play was directed by Hal Chambers.

Selecting a highlight without spoiling the plot is problematic and this is, subject to a little artistic licence, a true story. The scene of Matilda’s escape from Oxford Castle, barefoot on a freezing winter’s night, is both dramatic, captivating and mesmerising. The audience, seated so close to the action, becomes part of it.

Be prepared for some edgy adult themes, shocking violence and a rather surprising ending.

Where will RBL go after this? Readingas might love Henry II; after all, he was at Reading Abbey when it was hallowed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1164.

The Hallowing of the Church at Reading Abbey by Thomas Becket in 1164 – Oil on canvas by Stephen Reid (1920) © Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)

This is a must-see play for Reading folk and historians to learn more about the abbey’s roots and its importance in medieval times.

The play runs until 18 November and full details and ticket bookings are available on the RBL website.

Matilda the Empress. Video (c) Reading Between the Lines

  1. Reading Between the Lines
  2. The history of St James’ Church
  3. Matilda the Empress comes to Reading
  4. Matilda the Empress on Youtube
  5. Henry I of England at St James’ Church
  6. The Life and death of Reading’s King, in the Oracle on the Kennet
  7. Matilda: The Strongest Woman we Know
  8. Reading Abbey Quarter
  9. Reading Museum online collection