Matilda the Empress review at St James’ Church, Reading – ‘dynamic, engaging, ambitious’
Examining the life of a fascinating but often overlooked historical figure, Matilda the Empress is a tightly-plotted account of England’s first civil war. The play, by author Beth Flintoff, follows up last year’s Henry I of England, which similarly sought to explore Reading’s past as a hub of religious and royal activity. Despite the extensive exposition demanded by the complex tale, Flintoff deftly balances facts with satisfying character development.
On one side of this conflict is the titular Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror and heir to the throne. Dani McCallum captures all her renowned pride and fury, but also makes apparent the precariousness of her position. Her uncompromising attitude finds a foil in her namesake Matilda of Boulogne – a poised and softly-spoken Georgina Strawson – whose shrewdness and modesty cause less friction with 12th century notions of a woman’s role. Meanwhile, Oliver Gomm is warm and strangely sympathetic as the simpering usurper King Stephen.
Director Hal Chambers gives the show a lively promenade staging, keeping his large ensemble pacing and pirouetting purposefully back and forth between the two armed camps at each end of the space. Tableaux develop simultaneously at either extreme, marking each dramatic reversal of fortune, creating a real sense of frantic, overlapping action.
The mood is further heightened by an atmospheric score by Benjamin Hudson and Rosalind Steele. Bass notes and distorted chants reverberate within the vaults of St James’ Church, recalling the lasting legacy of events which took place in the vicinity centuries before.