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Corn Exchange - Eleanor of Aquitaine: Mother of the Pride

26th February 2004.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Lines of fire and steel

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Mother of the Pride, at The Corn Exchange, on Thursday, February 26

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen to Henry II of England, and formerly Queen of France, is a gift to any playwright.

An emancipated woman 800 years before 20-century feminism imagined it had invented the idea, she was passionate, powerful, shrewd and scheming, an indomitable woman of intellect and courage, who railed against the stultifying and confining life mapped out for a woman of her time. She would have been extraordinary in any century; in her own time she was a trailblazer.

Catherine Muschamp's one-woman play is a perfect vehicle for one of our finest actresses, Eileen Page, a veteran of the RSC under Peter Brook, the National under Olivier, and the Old Vic.

Heir to her father's lands of Aquitaine and Poitou, Eleanor was married at 15 to the future Louis VII of France, and at 29 to Henry Plantagenet. She bore him eight children in 12 years - her 'pride of lions' - among them two future English kings, Richard I and John. Together she and Henry ruled a kingdom that stretched from Hadrian's Wall to the Pyrenees.

It's 1204. Eleanor, now 82, frail but feisty, has taken the veil. She has outlived her husband and all but two of her children, John, and Eleanor, Queen of Spain, and from her Fontevrault convent confronts the events and people who have made up her life. It is 30 years since she saw Henry but he is still the dominant player, her memories of him still a mix of the passion and duplicity that characterised their life together.

Lighting, cloistered but intense, was a metaphor for the claustrophobic, closed community, the stage empty of all but a chair, a footstool and a stand, guarded by four candles. Medieval church song and the occasional convent bell were the only accompaniment.

It takes an actress of consummate skill to sustain such an intense one-hander. Eileen Page's powerfully-controlled skills conveyed not only the frailty of old age - stiff, hobbling, feeling for her chair as she sat down - but imbued that frailty with a sense of what a powerhouse this woman had been. Her vitality, energy, strength and beauty were palpable.

The words were beautifully spoken, but there was fire and steel in every line. Her eyes glittered with memories of meeting and bedding Henry ('my wealth was an attraction'); they shadowed when she remembered his many infidelities; they softened when she spoke of her children. She confronted the king's complicity in Becket's death, hers in Rosamund Clifford's.

This was the second time this show had come to The Corn Exchange, and it was good to see such a full and warmly appreciative audience. This was theatrical alchemy at its best. A tour de force.