Rabble Theatre presents a fine dramatization of King Henry I’s life. It was truly thrilling to watch history reenacted, made even more pungent by the gore and striking stage combat. I knew very little about Henry I, so it was a delight to learn about the past in a way that was so visceral.
We sat on pews before a skatepark of a stage (designed by Sarah Jane Booth), streaked with blood red and earthy tones in the holy setting of the St Paul’s Church. The acoustics brought the play to life and the church setting reflected its reverence to an immersive effect.
The in-depth research by writer Beth Flintoff must have inspired and informed the strong character choices which were cohesive with their actions and decisions. I could see parallels between modern archetypes in the characters such as Henry I’s tact and political diplomacy in his crisp RP and almost parliamentary utterances.
Henry is introduced with Roger, his appointed priest (Joseph Black). The two are banterous and Henry is earnest which makes his later acts more repulsive and subject to judgement. Toby W. Davies’ performance is impressive, conveying an individual torn between virtue and tact before a regression into kingly barbarity. Black provides a gentle gravitas as Roger, Henry’s reminder of moral conscience with aptly timed disapproving looks.
All brothers showcase the blind confidence of wealth. William Rufus (Gabrielle Sheppard) is sparky and volatile, displaying what we would call sociopathic tendencies, but they may have just been a sign of the times. Her flamboyant king was comically fantastic but a little mismatched to the style of the piece. The change from prince to king was drastic and it would have been more cohesive to have seen more of those indulgent traits in the prince. Mark Middleton’s Robert, the cowardly brother, had the comedically acute balance of being unintelligent with a hovering aware defensiveness that other people think he is unintelligent. Both Middleton and Davies subtly convey the brothers in old age with a distant, clouded focus.
Barnett makes for a terrifying yet magnetic Belleme, a stark contrast to Robert. He is calculating, discerning and vindictive with fragments of a wealthy CEO in his manner. There was a particularly powerful dynamic between Edith (Georgie Fellows) and Henry. Fellows portrayed her assertion of boundaries and unswerving moral rigour excellently which made for sharp back and forth between the two.
Rabble Theatre’s mission is to stage local stories with women at the heart of it. You could feel Agnes’ (Anjelica Serra) anguish as she sacrificed her integrity and happiness for her survival. Amy Concachan’s Countess is stern, with a radiating warmth masking her frustration at her position in society. The multi-roling creates a sense of reincarnation of women into different characters and the fortuitousness of their circumstances.
The lighting design matched the tension in the piece, paired with rumbling drumbeats. Michael Brenkley’s design created a stunningly beautiful image of drowned bodies in the sea as the ensemble “floated” slowly.
During the medieval period, human life with its desires and philosophical yearnings was condensed into an intensity that constantly weighed moral stupor, pride and survival. Flintoff’s writing and Hal Chamber’s direction really brought out these primal and transcendent values through their depiction of relentless scheming and the ongoing theme of choice.
Reviewer: Riana Howarth
Reviewed: 22nd July 2023
North West End UK Rating: