While I have written about Shakespeare’s history plays recently, other playwrights, contemporary to Shakespeare or to us, have used the people and events of history upon which to build their plots. James Goldman’s play, The Lion In Winter, which we recently attended at the Blackfriar Theatre in Staunton, VA fits this tradition. In some ways Lion In Winter is a pre-quel to Shakespeare’s play King John. Goldman wrote the play in the 1960’s, with a poor showing on Broadway in 1966, then an acclaimed film rendition in 1968. Well, who could complain about Katherine Hepburn portraying Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine or Peter O’Toole wearing Henry II’s robes? The American Shakespeare Center’s production runs out these characters for another look at the scenes behind the scenes of politics and royal families.
In case you have not been reading historical novels about the 12th century, Henry II married the widowed French Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had borne only girls, who could not inherit the crown of France. As Henry’s wife, she borne four sons, providing an heir and some spares. Hence the conflict of the play. Henry has passed on the crown to his eldest son, Henry, who subsequently died. Henry now had three not-quite-right-for-the crown sons to chose from: Richard (who would become Richard the Lionhearted), the warrior, Geoffrey, the schemer, and John, the pimply, insecure teenager. To stir the pot, Henry is sort of a sexaholic. He has locked up Eleanor for a couple of year, while carrying on with his mistress, Alais, one of the daughters of the French royalty, and betrothed (at age 7) to Richard. Place any set of these characters into any room in the castle on Christmas Eve, when Eleanor is granted freedom for the holiday, and expect to have a couple of hours of squabbling.
Goldman has set up The Lion In Winter as a series of bouts, not of boxing, but WestleMania. Certainly, the characters beat each other up, verbally, in each scene, but these are carefully choreographed exchanges, with the end of each round ending with a decision of who won that round, often with the last minute declaration of how this or that strategy gave the bout to someone other than the loudest and most puffed up character who exited the scene too early. Now, Shakespeare would have been all over this main plot, but doubled the time of the play by adding several subplots, some ne’er-do-well drunks and whores, crowds of soldiers descending upon each other, and a few animals. Goldman keeps the play pretty sparse, which gives us a sense of hiding behind the tapestry in the royals’ private chambers (begging the question of why they invited us before someone barged in with some rant).
With only seven characters to portray on the open and fully lit stage of the Blackfriar Theatre, the cast has plenty of opportunity to develop the Kings on England and France, Queen, sons, and mistress. The risk of the constant fighting, is that they could play this as WestleMania, letting a costume and mask scream, “I’m Henry, see my crown?”, “I’m Richard, see my armor?”, “I’m Queen Eleanor, see my jewelry?”, “I’m the mistress, see my…?” Fortunately, this is The American Shakespeare Center, and the cast goes beyond the costumes to build truly evil characters, who scheme, plot, betray, and lick their wounds.
James Keegan and Rene Thornton, Jr. portray Henry II and Phillip, the kings of England and France respectively. Both fill the stage with their presence, though in contrasting manners. Keegan, robed in rust and gold, struts and bellows, with his smile and sneer switching momentarily as he browbeats, cajoles, and corners his appointments. Thornton, robed in blue and gold, commands attention through his restraint. He waits for the various family members to reveal themselves, and to betray each other. While King Henry battles his family against time, being 50 years old, King Phillip has a couple of decades before he need to worry about passing on his kingdom.
Another generation-divided pair, are Queen Eleanor (Tracy Hostmyer) and Alais (Tracie Thomason). Hostmyer brings age and cynicism to her queen, who can as quickly seduce as assault the lumbering men in her family. Thomason demonstrates not the restraint of control, like Phillip, but the restraint of dependence on the royal family. Her desire is to be Henry’s wife, whom she drapes herself on, like another royal robe. But, she knows that she is betrothed to Richard, or maybe John, whom she cannot envision adorning. The queen recognizes that her beauty has not been enough to keep the king’s eye. Hostmyer plays her wit and cunning to trump his hand. The mistress has little other than her youthful loyalty and fertility to hold onto the king.
The three sons present a near generational division. Richard (Benjamin Curns), at 26, has a decade on John (John Harrell), the 16 year old. Geoffrey (Gregory Jon Phelps) is mid-way between, both in age and position within the family. Curns shows his character’s strength’s by mirroring his stage father, King Henry, with is posturing, strutting, and bellowing. Harrell, who is physically tall and broad, as well as near our age, finds the awkward adolescent in his stooped posture, fidgety hands, and shuffling feet. While actually slightly taller than Curns, Harrell’s John looks like a lump of clay to Curns’ Richard, a tower of steel. The actors’ ability to carry these images throughout the play keeps the tension between the brother’s chosen by different parents. Geoffrey, the son who will never be chosen for the crown, is usually blocked at the back of the stage. He is haughty but constrained by those who stand in more prominent positions. Someone is always between Geoffrey and the important decisions. Jon Phelps plays Geoffrey as sullen and plotting. Whomever receives the crown will have to look for Geoffrey to administer the kingdom.
The Queen arrives from her imprisonment in England to the British territories in France on Christmas eve. For two days the family will struggle with their self-imposed conflicts over how to hold the kingdom together. After Christmas, Henry leads Eleanor back to the ship to sail to England, and her imprisonment again. Regardless of the strife, they pledge to gather again for Easter. The family cycle will continue as long at all the characters can return to the castle. These lions may quarrel in Winter. I doubt that a lamb would come with Spring.
I wonder why a play about a 12th century royal family’s internal jousting would be written in the middle of the 20th century, and appeal to audiences 50 years later. While our nation might seem to be founded in revolt against the king and royal family’s internal politics, in our election cycles we are obsessed with our nod to the king: presidential elections. We have our royal families (Roosevelts, Kenndy’s, Bushes, Clintons). We have our faction advisors (Republican and Democratic parties). We have our news agencies constructing the histories. But, just as Lion in Winter transpires behind the walls of the castle, most of our politics occurs far from our homes and lives. Richard will become king, then die. John will become king, continuing the disputes and wars of kings in Shakespeare’s play. Fortunately, we know from history that King John’s excesses will be curbed by the Magna Carta.