American theatregoers with only a rudimentary familiarity with the history of the British monarchy might be forgiven if they don’t know about the Empress Matilda, who was one of the claimants to the British throne during “The Anarchy” of 1135 through 1153, when England warred with Normandy and the crown was in dispute. Matilda (daughter of Henry I) fought with her cousin, Stephen of Blois, for control of the kingdom. There’ll be a quiz next paragraph. (Just kidding.)
If you are like me, fellow American theatergoer, your knowledge of British royal history is pretty much limited to Shakespeare, and what can be gleaned from plays and films like “Lion In Winter,” “A Man For All Seasons,” “Beckett,” and other such amusing fables. So perhaps it would be helpul to know that the Empress Matilda was the mother of Henry II, whose wife was Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was played in the movies by Katherine Hepburn, who delivered some really great lines.
Actually, though, none of this knowledge is required to appreciate Stuart Bousel’s one act, single character play, in which the Empress Matilda, fleeing on foot from unfortunate circumstances alone on a cold winter night, makes a solo march for miles along the frozen Thames to wait in the dark. She hopes to rendezvous with rescuers who might never show. This is an historical incident from Matilda’s life, and the poetic resonance of the image of the “Snow Walk” was enough to inspire the play. It is certainly enough to satisfy an audience.
When Bousel spoke recently of the play to San Francisco Chronicle Drama Critic Lily Janiak, he connected Matilda’s situation metaphorically with our current situation, as we move through the time of COVID. “Aren’t we all kind of walking up a frozen river in the middle of the night hoping we make it till morning and the next thing? Isn’t that basically everybody right now?”
It is the potent metaphorical force of the “Snow Walk” as an image of passages we all face at some point in our lives that gives this play its considerable impact, transcending the historical details that inspired it.
When Catherine Luedtke, as Matilda, stops in the frozen woods to peer into the dark and explain herself, it is like Dante waking in midlife to find himself in a dark forest. It’s primal. Here is a woman who has known power and sorrow, war and peace, love and loss, and she is now formidable as she examines her place in the world, justifying herself to invisible auditors.
The historical details are secondary to the effect of being taken on a breathtaking emotional ride by an actress that knows how to do that with confidence. (One imagines that Ms. Luedtke did not waste a moment of the time she spent studying the trade at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.)
Standing in the dark, she stares out at us and absolutely insists upon being seen. Even though, as she notes, “It’s very possible I might die out here before anybody sees me . . . ” Is it possible to summarize the challenge of mid life any more eloquently than this?
Bousel, a playwright with a gift for pithy observation, provides his actress with many such effective lines, as when she asks her audience, “Is it hard being common?” Under the circumstances, as she faces the common fate of all humanity, alone and waiting in the dark for what will come, it is a potent challenge.
In another memorable moment she observes, “You don’t get to be called mistress, or empress, and not be punished for your mistakes.” This is excellent writing, and Bousel provides plenty of it.
The play was written specifically for Luedtke, after she had starred as Eleanor of Acquitaine in a production of “Lion In Winter” which Bousel directed. It is easy to see why he was inspired.. This actress has an unusually expressive face, especially her wide, dark, and emotion-filled eyes, which convey, with astonishing speed, a wide range of feeling, skipping from love to horror to anger to despair to acceptance in a manner that thrills. And her voice is a musical instrument.
Nick Tengrove directs with a light hand, encouraging his actress to trust her voice and her expressions to carry the day, performing with almost minimal movement, barely even turning her head. She simply looks out in the dark and delivers. It is the right approach.
In a conversation with this reviewer, Bousel remarks that he does not believe he is done with “The Anarchy,” a period of history which he feels (quite rightly) is not unlike what we are experiencing now. He expects there will be more monologues to come. That is something to anticipate!
“The Snow Walk of the Empress Matilda” was streamed live on January 29, 2021. It remains available for viewing here and here through February 1, 2021, as a benefit for EXIT Theatre, per agreement with Actors Equity Association. There is no charge to view the recording, but donations to EXIT Theatre are encouraged and can be made here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“The Snow Walk of The Empress Matilda,” by Stuart Bousel. Produced as a streamed reading by Exit Theatre per agreement with Actors Equity Association. Director: Nick Tengrove. Sound Design: Robert Lawson. Digital Media Constultant: Tim Kerbavaz.
Matilda: read by Catherine Luedtke