In 1183, King Henry II of England spends his Christmas with family and a couple of guests. Yet, with his wife as his political prisoner, his three constantly scheming sons, as well as his mistress and her cousin the King of France all under one roof, Henry’s Christmas is far from a quiet night.
Very early, it becomes clear that the focus of The Lion in Winter, written by James Goldman and directed by Jim Holmes at the Ron Maslin Playhouse, is on the love-hate relationship that exists between King Henry and Queen Eleanor- their tit for tat word play and constant attempts to out-scheme each other and everyone else around them made me think that this is what television series House of Cards would be like if it took place 800 years earlier. Every time the children think they have outsmarted the King, he successfully turns their plans against them. Dale Maceachern and Kim Strauss are easily the major reason why this show is worth the price of admission. Skilled performers, together they mix a lot of humour, love, and hate in such a way that for the audience it becomes a welcomed difficulty to choose sides.
Maceachern offers a King Henry that is nothing like the character in the history books; rather than a posh and stately man as he is often characterized, in this production he is a sleazier and constantly jovial person with a mentality more commonly associated with a used car salesman. In every scene, Henry is joking and buddying up to the people around him, until he decides that that strategy doesn’t work anymore and moves on to something else. No matter what, he it does with a smile. Maceachern’s Henry seems to always be enjoying the royal chess game that is constantly being played before him. It is this amusement that Maceachern brings to the role that allows the audience to laugh and enjoy the otherwise serious political intrigue and infighting happening onstage.
Strauss holds her own as Queen Eleanor with a very commanding presence at all times. She appears as a veteran stage actor who knows her craft well and not, as her bio states, as someone having just returned to theatre after a 17 year hiatus. In a moment, Strauss’ Queen can be effectively enticing the king and in the next she uses her words as an attempt to dethrone him. Not the easiest split second contrast for any actor, but Strauss performs it with grace and precision. Certainly the performances of the King and Queen are what shine so bright in this show.
The continuous thorns in the sides of the King and Queen are their three sons – Richard, Geoffrey, and John – who all seem to possess the same one goal in life: to sit on England’s throne. At the very least, this would make any family get together awkward. However, with all three characters being so young and lacking in experience, we see that they are, unlike their parents, incapable of creating and successfully devising strategies that would help them win the throne for themselves.
The youngest son John, played by Car Cachero, relentlessly complains to anyone who will listen that he deserves the throne. We see though that John is not adept at strategy and therefore relies on others to do the work for him. The eldest brother Richard, played by Marko Pilic, consistently tries to get what he wants through the only the two ways that he knows how: veiled threats and declarations of war. Finally, Geoffery can’t see past his own resentment towards constantly being overlooked and ignored as the middle son. All three men lash out at their parents, especially their father, constantly attempting to usurp the throne from Henry only to be outdone time and again by their elder.
Goldman’s script is probably the most impressive aspect of this production. Thanks to Holmes’ pragmatic, bare bones approach to the direction, the writing is allowed to become the major feature of the performance. The many subtle themes that Goldman weaves into his storytelling without making it too heavy handed, is impressive. The constant clash of the vitality of youth versus the wisdom of age, the Lear-esq fear that Henry has of his mortality, the fine line between love and hate, all of these themes and more are used masterfully by Goldman to tell his tale.
Some of the transitions between scenes in the actual show felt awkward and not as thought out as the scenes themselves. At times, it was jarring to observe. The music that would be playing seemed to correspond poorly with exactly what is going on in the show and seemed a bit contrived- especially the random moment when Louis Armstrong started playing. It felt as though the transitions were not actually integrated within the show and are rather just a practical necessity.
Overall this is a play is a wonderful retelling of one of the English world’s most important and infamous royals told in an often times humorous, though ultimately touching manner.
The Lion in Winter starts the second half of its run on March 31st and ends on April 4th.