Eleanor of Aquitaine

Catherine Muschamp
The Tobacco Factory, Bristol
(2003)

This, on paper, was a very promising night. A look at the eventful life of an extraordinary woman by any standard, certainly in the context of the Middle Ages; a performance in the title role by a very distinguished stage actress and the wonderfully intimate venue of The Tobacco Factory, home to one of the finest Shakespearean theatre companies currently working in Britain.

In addition this play, which clocks in at around an hour in all, comes trailing an Edinburgh Festival five-star award and respectful reviews from the nationals.

In practice, however, the evening adds up to something less than the some of its parts, although this is by no means the fault of Eileen Page who turns in a consummately poised and accomplished performance as the eponymous queen. Currently in her 70s, she has worked with such alumni as Paul Schofield and the director Peter Brook and was at the National Theatre during Olivier's reign and worked with him in Long Day's Journey at the Old Vic.

It was her enjoyment in playing the role of Eleanor in Shakespeare's King John and her return to it a decade later in James Goldman's The Lion in Winter which led her to take up the offer of Catherine Muschamp's one-woman play, Eleanor: Mother of the Pride. As the play opens, Eleanor, now in her 70s and retired to a convent, looks back over her life and loves. A life that took in marriage aged 15 to King Louis VII of France, and, a year later, to Henry, the Duke of Normandy, who became King Henry II of England.

She gave birth to twelve children, eight of whom survived into adulthood, the most famous of whom included Richard the Lionheart and the much-maligned King John. But where Eleanor stands out from the age is her determination to be recognised as an equal with her husband and to rule in her own right.

The staging is minimal: a chair, a crown, candles and incense burning - Eleanor enters. She identifies, in the audience, figures from her past and begins to unfold the story of her life. The language is vivid, evocative, banners "blow stiff in the Atlantic breeze", while Beckett "condemned me to a life of triviality I would not endure." One particularly grisly anecdote relates how a victim has his bowels stuffed down his throat while his skin is stretched across a frame, to be played like a musical instrument before his "still living body".

This, clearly, is not a woman to be dealt with lightly. It is a plum part and Eileen Page seizes it with both hands. She is very believably a woman who would "defend me and mine as a lioness would her cubs." The drawback of the piece is that there is an awful lot of information to take in and requires close concentration if one is, as I am, not too familiar with the period. Still, it was never less than intriguing, excellently played and very informative.

Reviewer: Pete Wood