THE LION IN WINTER
by James Goldman
Director: David Ward assisted by Lottie Shepherd
This play had me hooked and intrigued before the curtain had even opened. This is an epoch in history that has always captivated me, the battles and alliances that allies forged to get what they want. It would appear that I am not alone in this. I sat in the bar and I couldn’t help but overhear others at a close table discussing the lineage of the royal Plantagenet family in the 12th Century.
The Lion in Winter is a 1966 play by James Goldman, depicting the personal and political conflicts of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their children, Richard, Geoffrey, John and their guests, Alais and Philip Capet during Christmas 1183.
The conflict is over who is to inherit the throne once Henry dies. Henry favours their puny, compost-smelling youngest, John; Eleanor backs their more regal Richard. Meanwhile, their middle son, Geoffrey, schemes in the background. But the whole family is engaged in a game of human chess in which an empire is the prize. Henry's mistress, Alais and her brother Philip, King of France, are also pawns in all this.
The set, designed and built by Dave Ward, Lee McGregor and the construction team was not sumptuous by any stretch of the imagination, but it was very effective and had great functionality. The painted (I liked the use of yellow to brighten what could have been a very austere set if grey had been used) stone walls that were hinged, created different shaped spaces for action to take place in the different scenes. The cast members are to be complimented on their inclusion to aid the swift changes. It looked very practised and everyone knew exactly what, and where, things had to be.
The lighting plot, created by Chris Burnett and David Burns, established the mood for each scene and the costumes ensured the character’s status in society was noted, but maybe I was looking for some to be more opulent
The pace of this play has to be good and with seven strong actors at the helm that is just what it was.
It was a pleasure to watch Ian Wilkinson at work as Henry II. He was totally at ease in the role and delivered the dialogue with such authority. There was super rise, fall, light and shade in his tone and delivery which captivated the audience. Yet, even with this strong macho character there were times when he showed a more tender side to the character.
Sue Handle’s portrayal of the imprisoned Queen Eleanor was a much more measured and aloof performance in contrast to the passion of Ian, but one could detect the underlying scheming that was inhabiting the character. The false affection and sarcasm exhibited was very poignant.
The “Greedy Trinity”, in other words the three siblings, were all used as pawns in their parents’ ongoing feud and plots, and all gave fabulous performances which had the audience enthralled.
Mathew King, Henry’s eldest son, “the Lionheart”, was serious, stern and imposing as the future king. Though there was also the suggestion that there was a bond and almost love between him and The King of France, played by Chris Billington. For all the serious, stern and passionate delivery, here was a man who yearned for affection. A thoroughly engaging characterisation.
Similarly, the brooding resentment of Geoffrey was superbly brought to life by Dan Pothecary. The simmering resentment was evident for all to see. This actor said so much through small movements and looks to establish the malevolence of character: he was a pleasure to watch.
The naïve youngest son, who did become King John later in life, was successfully portrayed by Sam Hindmarch. He was that petulant younger sibling who wanted everything and was prepared to be manipulated to get it. Each brother had given their characterisations a lot of thought and consideration and they worked beautifully as a balance. All they wanted was their parents affection, for who they were, and not what they could offer, and that became quite central to the plot throughout.
Sarah Howsam and Chris Billington gave confident performances as Alais, King Henry’s mistress, and Philip of France.
David Ward and Lottie Shepherd must, and should, be very pleased with the presented play. The discipline of all actors during their quiet moments on stage were excellent, never letting their characterisation or concentration drop for one second.
A period production is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was certainly mine!