First produced in New York in 1966, The Lion in Winter by James Goldman is the story of one family’s very dysfunctional medieval Christmas. Plots are hatched, found out, amended and re-hatched. Loyalties are tested and broken and forged again and all sorts of dark, long buried secrets come out, some for the first time and some for the hundredth. In short, it could be just about any family’s holiday gathering except that the person glaring at you across the buffet table is unlikely to have armies at their disposal, the fate of nations in their hands, Popes to coerce or convenient towers in which to lock up rebellious spouses. Though the characters are historical, and the circumstances leading up to this holiday are generally accurate, the events of the play are fictional.
It is 1183. Henry II, ruler of all of Great Britain and Ireland as well as the entire western half of France holds court at Chinon. Miraculously, he has reached the age of fifty (he brags that he has ten years on the Pope) and is as powerful as ever. He has let his wife Eleanor out of the London tower he’s had her imprisoned in for the past decade for the occasion (she supported a rebellion lead by her eldest, now deceased son Henry the Younger). Eleanor, is every bit his match; Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right since childhood, a Queen first of France and then of England for a total of fifty years. She participated in the Second Crusade and was one of the most famous and powerful women of the medieval period.
The royal couple’s three sons are a study of birth order psychology: Richard, the eldest surviving son (still living in the shadow of his deceased older brother) is the lifelong solder and natural leader. John, the youngest is an easily manipulated cretin. The former is Eleanor’s choice for King and the latter, Henry’s. The middle child and the brains of the family Geoffrey, is championed by none, a fact not lost on him as evidenced through his own interrupted schemes throughout.
Rounding out the party are Alais, betrothed as a child to Richard and now Henry’s mistress, and Philippe, Alais’ younger brother, the current King of France, who has come to see Henry make good on a long ago promise to his own father and predecessor. Alais may seem like a pawn at first and Philip naïve, but both quickly adapt to the machinations of the household, proving themselves worthy contestants in this battle familiale.
Though the material is heavy, the dialogue is so witty that there can be no question that this is a comedy. The Lion in Winter is most entertaining when Henry and Eleanor are together. Dale MacEachern seems to be channeling Groucho Marx by way of Alan Alda while Kim Strauss, steals every scene she’s in with her droll, yet regal, presence.
The set design is simple but evocative. Several beautiful stone pillars suggest the walls of different rooms with just a few very authentic looking pieces moved about expertly by the house servants when room changes are in order. The costumes were equally beautiful and fitting for the characters wearing them.
Though many of the scenes are played with a light touch, there are moments of serious crisis which are ably brought to life and maintain the gravity of the subject matter. It could be imagined that the more humorous moments, if played with a more biting and sarcastic tone, could come across as expressions of deep-seated rage or unhinged meanness couched in caustic remarks. The fact that these exchanges are kept on the lighter side prevents the production from being an overly tense affair and allows the dialogue to move between a few different registers. There is a good amount of humanity in this approach and such direction makes for a very enjoyable theatre experience.
The Lion in Winter continues to run from March 24 – 28 & March 31 – April 5 at Kanata Theatre (1 Ron Maslin Way). Curtains at 8pm, tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance by phone (613-831-4435) or online.