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Henry II review at Reading Minster – ‘an insightful history play’

Scene from Henry II at Reading Minster. Photo: Pieter Lawman

Beth Flintoff’s Henry II completes a trilogy of medieval conquerors plays performed by theatre company Reading Between the Lines over the past three years.

This final instalment zones in on Easter weekend 1164, when the long-awaited Reading Abbey, now a ruin, was consecrated.

The enjoyment of watching Hal Chambers’ production owes a great debt to Flintoff’s ability to condense a tumultuous moment in history down into two main plot points: the marriage of Henry II (Mark Middleton) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Annabelle Brown), and the growing schism between the king and Thomas Beckett (Toby W Davies).

There’s also a feminist note to the story, as time and again it’s the women who steer the ship. In contrast to the petty and short-fused Henry, Brown’s Eleanor is endlessly dignified even when most exasperated with her husband.

Likewise, her daughter Marie (Bethan Mary-James) is a romantically and artistically headstrong young woman tasked with guiding Oliver Hoare’s Bart, the Ed Sheeran of medieval troubadours.

Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin, a Grade I listed church, stands in for the abbey and provides a suitably striking backdrop. Bek Palmer’s design is classily understated and slightly pagan-looking in its use of plants and natural materials.

But it’s Oliver Welsh’s lighting design that triumphs, filling the space with ethereal swirls of light that cut through the haze and cast shadows down from the building’s stonework. The clever use of a city centre building reiterates just how entrenched Flintoff’s play is in the local area.

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Trilogy of history plays concludes with an insightful take on the rule of Henry II