Reviews - The Lion in Winter
It is December, 1183, and so-year-old Henry II, King of England, has assembled his court at his castle in Anjou for the Christmas festivities. Among those present is Henry’s wife Queen Eleanor of
Aquitaine, released for the occasion from long imprisonment for scheming against him, and their three surviving sons, John, Geoffrey and Richard, who each have an eye to the throne. Also present is Phillip II, King of France (Eleanor’s stepson by a previous marriage) and Phillip’s sister, Alais Capet, ostensibly engaged to Richard since childhood but who has since become Henry’s mistress. It’s as tangled as a box of Christmas lights. Power, as usual, is at stake, and the play explores the relationships, conflicts and political manoeuvrings of this volatile gathering.
James Goldman’s script offers a cast plenty of scope to explore the gamesmanship of real people for whom the stakes are high—no less than the crown. The language is rich and complex, shot with dark themes of betrayal and cold calculation, lightened by sudden wit and humour and sparkling with clever dialogue that evokes the thrust and parry of swordplay. There was much to enjoy about this production; however, some essential elements did not work for this reviewer.
Set design, props and lighting design by Alan Thompson were excellent, creating a believable castle interior. Four substantial-looking pillars and a heraldic backdrop provided the bones.
Multiple branches of big candles were set at different heights, adding to the sense of space. These were moved to help create different spaces for the various scenes. Banners and Christmas wreaths added colour. Lighting was effective. Chairs, stools, a screen, a curtained four-poster bed, casks and barrels to denote the dungeon—all looked terrific and gave me a sense of ‘being there Scenes changes were managed by an efficient crew under stage manager Tania Chandler. One slip: the crew came onstage to start re-setting before the Act1i curtain had come down. This detracted from the emotional atmosphere created by Henry’s excellent closing monologue.
Costuming was uneven. It can be difficult to reproduce the look for a specific era but if that’s the way you are playing it, then that’s what has to be done down to the last detail. King Henry’s tunic and heavy fur collared look was good; however, his legs were quite obviously in modern-day trousers and his feet in modern-day shoes. King Phillip of France also wore brown modern business shoes that were so out of place with his silver grey tunic as to be distracting. Brothers Geoffrey and Richard wore boots—much better. John’s velvet padded tunic was appropriate; however, he too wore modern shoes. Queen Eleanor’s long tunic and hair covering worked well. Alais Capet’s lovely red velvet gown needed an underskirt to hide her lower legs which were on show due to the uneven design of the gown’s hemline. The short nightdress she wore in another scene looked too modern.
The role of King Henry was demanding and complex. Philip Cameron-Smith gave a nuanced, congruent portrayal of Henry’s emotional shifts: from jovial to enraged, from cruel to tender, from ruthless political animal to deeply hurt and betrayed father. Philip’s projection and intonation were impeccable, he moved like a king and, most importantly, he showed us Henry’s heart.
As Eleanor of Aquitaine, Vicki Russell’s performance was quite good but a little uneven. She came to grips with the language of the play and as such delivered her lines well enough but emotional credibility was sometimes lacking. This wasn’t helped by at times overplaying her facial expressions and hand gestures. Vicki’s best scenes were those with Philip where the love/hate nature of Henry and Eleanor’s relationship came to the fore; these were well paced and revealing.
Now to my main problem: the remaining cast members (Nicole Gray as Alais Capet, Ross Tempest as Geoffrey ii, Duke of Brittany, Warrick Smith as Richard the Lionheart, Mason Sullivan as King Phillip II of France and Jeremy Withers as John) seemed, to a greater or lesser extent, physically uncomfortable on stage, either with their characters or just in their bodies. This was evident in stiff bodies, stilted walking, repeated hand gestures and stock attitudes that compensated for lack of internal emotional awareness (I am angry so I will stand here with my arms folded; I am distressed so I will hold my hands out). As a result they came across as two-dimensional. The program notes indicated some of these actors had limited experience and that’s OK. It was evident you were all working hard and each of you had some good moments. Take every opportunity to look, listen and learn from those who do it well. Directorial decisions didn’t always help as the staging was fairly static (and I note this was also a debut for one of the directorial team, Ben O’Connor). Often these actors were left standing or sitting in the one spot for long periods of time while others had their ‘turn’ to speak. With the exception of Eleanor at her dressing table and a couple of scenes involving the pouring of drinks, there was no sense that they were in real rooms where real things might happen. They had very little ‘business’ to help them create their characters—tossing dice, eating a sweetmeat, playing with a dagger, stitching a sampler—anything to be real in the moment will help an actor’s performance. Some coaching in ‘being royal’ would also have helped: how to move with authority, how to sit, bow and curtsey, etc. I simply didn’t believe they were who they were supposed to be.
The curtain call was marred by one actor who didn’t try to engage with the audience and one who came on in his t-shirt having shed his costume off stage. The details matter.
Did I enjoy this production? Thanks to the interesting script, the strong lead given by Philip Cameron-Smith as King Henry and the lovely set, yes I did. It was an uneven production but it had moments that were very good indeed.