This production of James Goldman's Lion in Winter offers an intimacy and intensity that the Academy Award-winning movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole does not. The Loeb Ex allows the audience to feel almost voyeuristic as it peeks into the British royal family's private life. Michelle Haner's direction contributes to this effect--she stages the characters so that they relate only to each other, completely ignoring the audience.
It may be set in 1183 at Henry II's castle at Chinon in France, but Lion in Winter is no static historical piece. The power struggles between King Henry II, his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children match those in any modern-day drama. The sibling rivalry between Henry's sons is magnified because they are vying for the throne, but the same issues of competition for parental love arise in an Arthur Miller play. In fact, the dysfunctional royal family shares more in common with today's families than with Medieval ones. These and other modern themes strengthen Lion in Winter, even though Haner does not belabor the play's contemporary relevance.
Henry II (Tom Hughes) loves being king. At 50, he has built the Angevin Empire, has three sons and has married the most powerful and desirable woman in Europe, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Suzanne Rose). The only problem is that his sons are weak and unsatisfactory heirs, his wife has staged a rebellion against him and he himself is growing old.
The actors enchant the audience as they reveal their hidden love, hatred and motives during the play. Tom Hughes shines as Henry. He exudes strength and arrogance, relishing his ability to trounce anyone who attempts to outwit him. The audience trembles in sympathy for Eleanor when Henry passionately kisses Alais (Nell Benjamin), his mistress, in front of her, to test Eleanor's professed "intellectual curiosity." Nell Benjamin makes Alais more than just a royal concubine--though sweet and beautiful, she has a tough edge. She's aware of all the implications of her situation, and her radiant strength explains why Eleanor feels so threatened by her.
John (Karl Saddlemeyer), Geoffrey (Richard Claflin) and Richard Lionheart (Adam Geyer), Henry's sons, provide both comic relief and a tragic element as they struggle for the throne. Saddlemeyer's fatuous complacence amuses the audience: "I'm Father's favorite--that's what counts." Claflin shows resentment at being the proverbial second son by spitting out every sarcastic line. Geyer shows the roots of Richard's Oedipal dilemma early in the play with his seemingly inexplicable hatred of his mother.
Rose plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of history's most intriguing characters, enigmatically. At first, her caustic shell seems so impenetrable that the audience almost believes that she is happy, but gradually her misery becomes clear. The audience believes her when, in defeat, she begs, "Can't we love one another just a little? That's how peace begins." Yet, as soon as she sees a chance to gain the upper hand, she rallies to the battle, saying, "We haven't lost."
Liz Levy and Anne Rippey's Medieval costumes and Kathryn Smith's props manage to convey a sense of the era without an extensive set. Unfortunately, clumsy set changes interrupt the flow of action and leave the audience impatiently waiting for the next scene.
But the spectacular cast, intimate setting and polished direction far outweighs any negatives. The Lion in Winter offers a theatrical treat--historical drama with contemporary relevance.
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