When The Shenandoah Press invited me to review the Saturday, July 28, 2012 performance of James Goldman’s play, The Lion in Winter at the American Shakespeare Center’s (ASC) Blackfriars Playhouse, I was presented with a challenge. Could I successfully put aside all memories of evocative sets and remembered lines from heady roles I had long admired and do justice to the review?
I’m a big movie fan and two of my favorite Peter O’Toole movies are The Lion in Winter and Becket. O’Toole played Henry II in both films but his stand-out portrayal of Henry in The Lion in Winter was unparalleled. So my problem centered upon suppressing remembered epic O’Toole scenes. Could James Keegan*’s Henry II erase O’Toole’s stamp of prodigious memories and implant an entirely new vision of Henry II on my brain?
How would a staging of the 1968 film classic, which won three Academy Awards (Goldman won for best adapted screenplay and Hepburn won Best Actress), hold up in comparison? I know. Stage and film are completely different mediums but this was still going to be a battle between O’Toole and Keegan and the indomitable Kate Hepburn versus Tracy Hostmyer* as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Speaking of Hepburn, I was never enchanted with her, and she was about as sexy as a wart, but she played Eleanor with such veracity that even I could believe she was a woman who enjoyed sex as she lay on her bed, writhing in delirious, remembered passion taunting her husband Henry with details of her supposed lovemaking to Henry’s father. Now that’s going too far.
And then there’s the set. The story takes place in 1183 at Chinon Castle in the English-ruled region of France. In the film you could feel the cold, damp, bone-chilling weather and this staging was on a humid summer evening in Staunton, Virginia in an enclosure that was warm, friendly and inviting. Could the production transport the audience to a dark place in a dank castle on a wintery Christmas Eve?
I would have to rely upon the promise of ASC Co-founder and The Lion in Winter’s director Jim Warren, for he predicted ASC’s production would be ‘movingly funny,’ so I let it all go and settled in for an evening of serious power struggles against an explosive political backdrop, potential civil war, treason, plots and counter-plots, demented scheming and deceit, all the while, hoping for a good laugh. I was not disappointed.
The Lion in Winter storyline is legend, and it’s full of twists and turns. Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet Kings, is an old man sick of war. He has built an empire and rules over more than half of Western Europe. He wants to know that his empire will remain unified upon his death and fears that his sons’ greed will divide it, plunging it into civil war. The son he had hoped would succeed him has died over the summer and he has three sons left, Richard (Benjamin Curns*), Geoffrey (Gregory Jon Phelps), and John (John Harrell).
Henry’s family is far from ordinary. They “are the world in small,” and nations do what they do for their reasons. Henry’s sons are simply mad for power, and he’s done everything he can to satiate their lust for crown and land. He holds a Christmas court at Chinon to decide which of the three is capable of shouldering his legacy.
Henry also invites his wife, Eleanor, the treasonous “great bitch,” to court. He has let her out of prison for Christmas to help celebrate with “the family.” For a decade, Eleanor’s been “bricked in” Salisbury Tower at Windsor Castle because she and their eldest sons led a revolt against him, and though imprisoned, Eleanor still holds great political sway, and Henry needs her at court to find out what tricks she has up her sleeve.
Who will get the crown? Henry favors John, Eleanor champions Richard, and no one even bothers to consider, Goeffrey who changes allegiance as often as he breathes. In the end, Henry chooses Richard telling him, “It’s all yours now… the crown, the girl, the whole black business.”
Who does Henry mean when he says Richard gets ‘the girl’? Why, Henry’s mistress and political pawn of course, Alais Capet (Tracie Thomason). As Henry sees it, “power is the only fact,” and he uses Alais to rip concessions from and for competing family members, and so Alais has been promised as the wife of whichever son Henry names as heir to the throne. Richard, Geoffrey, John, Alais and her younger brother, Phillip II, the King of France (René Thornton Jr.) are also invited to court while Henry plays pot-stirrer-in-chief.
And to spice the stew, there’s ‘history’ amongst them. Years before, young mistress Alais was betrothed to Richard. She was even raised by old Eleanor who, herself, was Phillip’s father’s former wife. And what do we know of this young king of France, Phillip? Why he’s had a biblical relationship with Richard and asks Henry “How stands the crown on boys who do with boys?” Can this sticky web become any more tangled?
Henry and Eleanor’s problems seem unrelentingly tragic in the film. On stage however, all these complicated dynamics combined with everyday concerns like aging, death, sibling rivalry, marital jealousy, legacy, inheritance and ‘blaming the parents’ are transformed into humorous situations everyone can relate to and laugh about. It’s as if the High Middle Ages met the 21st Century on common problematic ground.
I realized that it was the delivery of the language in combination with the universal lighting on a physical stage with audience contact that made all the difference. In this setting, line after line prompted hearty laughter. In the film, everything was dark, brooding and full of woe and misery. On stage these ‘situations’ were delightfully funny, except when things got serious, which bring us to Keegan’s Henry.
For a man who was the great grandson of William the Conqueror, King of England, Duke of Normandy and a Plantagenet, James Keegan’s bearing was more paternal than majestic until the scene where Henry deliberately hits Eleanor where she lives and tells Alais he’s “an old man in an empty place. Be with me.” As Keegan exits this scene, his comportment and glowering facial expression aimed directly at Eleanor show he’s not acting, he’s exhibiting true gamesmanship, and he’s a king not to be trifled with.
Fom this point on, Keegan’s powerful command of the role looses no steam and though there were times in the first act where Keegan’s line of sight wandered, as if he were trying to find someone in the audience to focus upon, by the second act, he really settled into his kingship and played the royal circus master with utter control.
At this point, it’s necessary to give a ‘well done’ to costume designer Erin M. West who chose to clothe Keegan in rich, kingly attire. ‘The historical Henry was often scruffily dressed, as was O’Toole, and this costuming choice went far in making Keegan royal and in separating the O’Toole image from the Keegan vision.
On the other hand, when Eleanor is first re-united with her youngest son John, she quips that he’s “so clean and neat.” Indeed, he is. He’s too clean, too neat. The line is sarcastic and meant to be a barb but it comes across all wrong. Goldman aptly describes John’s physicality when Alais tells Henry that she does not like his Johnny for “He’s got pimples, and he smells of compost.”
Johnny doesn’t ‘look’ like he’s rotting. He may have been sporting a non-too-royal short bliaut and peasant-like leather straps to gird his leggings, but John Harrell as the youngest prince was actually impishly charming. Perhaps a little make-up and roughing up of his costume might have helped Johnny overcome his pristine appearance, thus letting Eleanor’s line draw comedic air.
As an actor however, Harrell possessed an acute sense of timing in the delivery of his lines. He also chose a quieter voice that served him well offering up a welcome counterpoint to the louder voices like Richard who couldn’t modulate his anger to anything other than ‘full out’.
Benjamin Curns* was the only actor who just couldn’t overcome my indelibly preconceived notion that only Ian Hunter (The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938) could properly convey the mythical aura of the legendary Lionheart. Again, here were my prejudicial, personal memories getting in the way.
That being said, Curns’ rage seemed out of balance with that of his fellow players. With eyes open a bit too wide during most of his scenes, it felt like he was still locked in Richard III mode. Likewise, when Curns played scenes exposing Richard’s weaker traits, he seemed spindly and not at all lion hearted.
As for the other king, René Thornton, Jr.’s slow, deliberate and imperiously self-assured characterization of Phillip II was effortless and as for Henry’s mistress, Tracie Thomason was a picture of believable and lovely innocence.
The most difficult role to play was probably that of Geoffrey, the middle prince, the one no one ever thought of when mentioning the crown. Goeffry was ‘the watcher’, evaluating everyone as they switched their loyalties each time the wind changed direction. A cold and calculating type, Goeffry enjoyed watching Henry and Eleanor “go picnicking on one another.” However, Phelps did receive one of the longest laughs when he told Henry, “Here, father, here I am,” as he adjusted his belt to gird his loins, making a physical show of demonstrating his kingly eligibility.
And what of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the second most important character in the play? It may seem unimaginable that a woman could be such a power player in the 12th Century but her deeds and exploits were no fable. The real Eleanor had been at the center of power her entire life, making her more than a match for Henry’s wit.
While just a young teen, she was the most eligible bride in Europe. Three months after she became the Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitier, she married the King of France, Louis VII. Unconventional to the end, she joined Louis on the Second Crusade and once she returned, sought to have the marriage annulled. Once Louis agreed, and just two months after the annulment, she married Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou. Henry became Henry II, King of England in 1154 and they had eight children, three of whom would also become King. By the time she died, she had outlived Henry and all her children but John.
She also had a strong role model in the form of Henry’s mother, Mathilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, who was the first woman who almost ruled England in her own right. For whatever reason, Eleanor joined her eldest son, the younger Henry, when he defected to her ex-husband Louis, which was probably what got her sent to Salisbury Tower in the first place.
Thus it becomes understandable when Henry laments that he could have conquered Europe but for all the women he knew. For this and probably many other reasons, the men in the audience seemed to laugh loudest when Henry says, “I want no women in my life.”
From the moment she stepped on stage, Tracy Hostmyer* as Eleanor assumed a regal posture and bearing that befitted this powerful queen. Wearing a sumptuous and exquisitely tailored green velvet dress with sleeves adorned in fur, Tracy looked the image of one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Western Europe. She played her own Eleanor her own way and stood her ground and when she delivered perhaps the most famous line of the play, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” she welded the audience to the story.
There was one line I had hoped she’d deliver just like Kate Hepburn. It’s in the scene where she and Geoffry discuss selling out everyone to everybody and she tells Geoffrey, “We’ve got him where we want him,” referring to Henry. Tracy let loose that same guttural sound when she came to the word ‘got’ and it made me smile. That line is what defined Eleanor as the ultimate chess player, capable of any move no matter what the cost.
The film and the play have the difficult task of winding up the tragic remnants of these players’ lives and moving on to hopes for the future. No one has won anything, everyone has lost something, some more than others, yet Henry and Eleanor both wish that they might never die so they can continue the battle.
Keegan and Hostmyer didn’t have the benefit of a broad expanse of river bank to use as a backdrop to conclude this match, yet they managed the play’s ending brilliantly. All in all, this troupe did something I didn’t think possible. They expunged my memories of the film and created a whole new set of memories that were pure comedy laced with poignant sadness. Could it get any better? The audience didn’t think so. The cast and crew received three curtain calls and an appreciative standing ovation.
I can’t wait to see Shakespeare’s King John which begins its run on September 20, 2012.
Note: The Lion in Winter, a Blackfriars’ premiere, forms part of ASC’s Summer and Fall 2012 Seasons and is presented in complementary repertory with William Shakespeare’s King John. King John is the ninth of Shakespeare’s ten history plays in ASC’s cycle “The Rise and Fall of Kings.” The closing performance date for both productions is Saturday, November 24, 2012.
* Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.