This ’Lion‘ doesn’t roar, it sneers, snivels and sneaks
Despite its weighty title and subject matter—ambition and betrayal in a 12-century English royal family—and its inclusion in the Shakespeare in the Park series, Shakespearean this play is not. Indeed, The Lion in Winter is as much Dallas as Hamlet, and that’s what makes it fun.
The king, Henry II, is sleeping with a young woman half his age, Alais, whom he and the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, raised “like a daughter” so she could marry one of their three sons. Eleanor attempted a coup against Henry 10 years ago and has been brooding in prison since. Their three sons—brave bonehead Richard Lionheart, cunning Geoffrey and sniveling, cringing John—would cut each others’ throats to succeed as king.
But, hey, it’s Christmas in 1183, and the jolly family is gathered at Henry’s castle in Chinon, France (he’s king of “all Britain and half of France") for a reunion of sorts. Henry, who’s now 50, has summoned everyone to sort out the issue of succession, hoping to give the kingdom to whichever one of his three no-good sons can handle the job. If that doesn’t work, he wants to annul his marriage to Eleanor so he can marry Alais and father more sons.
Also on hand is young Philip Capet, king of what is left of France and once upon a time, it turns out, an especially close friend—wink, wink—of Richard’s.
James Goldman’s play was a big hit on Broadway in 1966 and, two years later, an even bigger one as a movie starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn. This version stars the formidable Jerry Miller as Henry and, as Eleanor, Sheri Bagley, who is wonderfully Hepburnesque in the role. Physically Miller makes a great Falstaff, but otherwise he’s very good here—both actors, in fact, are adept at playing off its Masterpiece Theatre elements against its underlying humor, even camp. These may be the Plantagenets, but they often sound like the Simpsons.
What else to make of Eleanor’s Marge-like characterization of her dysfunctional brood: “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
Later, when Henry decides he just doesn’t have it in him to murder his sons, she observes wryly, “Spare the rod and spoil the children, dear.”
Jeff Dickinson sharply plays Richard as a man of action and ambition but little intellect, and Allen Lunde makes a nicely nasty Geoffrey. Nicholas Meier brings teenage moodiness to John, making a semi-comic character of someone we know will later turn out be quite vicious. Nanci Willis is believable and lovely as Alais, and Brian Miner offers a touch of sly gentility to the role of Philip.
This is a wordy play. There’s no action to speak of, just various characters coming in and out of rooms and talking with—and cajoling, importuning, threatening and deriding—each other. (The small set doesn’t allow for much movement.) But it’s good talk, not ponderous at all, more like vintage O’Neill or Albee or Miller, full of maliciousness and caustic humor, but there’s love, too. As nasty as these people can be, they’re still a family.
As Eleanor asks her sons, “For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little? That’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children; we could change the world.”
She doesn’t mean it. She wants Richard to be king. It’s a put-on. Or is it? That ambiguity is what makes this play so enjoyable.