The Lion in Winter
Review by Jane Ledwell
What shall we hang? The holly or each other?” asks Eleanor of Aquitaine coldly in The Lion in Winter.
The summer of 2014 brings to life the winter of 1183 and a fictional Christmas court of the leonine King Henry II (John Dartt); his mistress Alais, who is beginning to assert her place (Leah Pritchard); his three sons, the youthful and weak John (Alex Furber), the lionhearted warrior Richard (Robert Tsonos), and the shrewd Geoffrey (Jonathan Widdifield); along with the diffident Phillip, the King of France (Brian Bisson); and, most pot-stirringly of all, the formidable, scheming wife Henry has imprisoned for a decade for fomenting his overthrow, the intelligent and manipulative Eleanor of Aquitaine (Gracie Finley). Here, “power is the only fact.”
Mordantly, wickedly funny without being a comedy, The Lion in Winter purrs and roars. The Watermark Theatre is foremost an actor’s theatre, a theatre for artisans and audiences who love what theatre can do with a few planks, some lights, a script, and a cast and crew who are willing to eat, breathe, and sleep theatre. Unsurprisingly, the Watermark continues to select actors’ plays, inviting casts to provide the performance of a lifetime.
James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter is just such an invitation: an actors’ play. Known best through the 1968 film adaptation with indelible performances by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, it was first produced on the stage in 1966. A script that loves language, Shakespeare’s history plays, classical Greek tragedies, and mid-20th century family dramas centred on the harmful effects of manipulative mothers, it provides scenes for actors to revel in.
Directed by artistic director Duncan MacIntosh, the fine acting company of The Watermark revels. In handsome, effective costumes and a spare set designed by Scott Penner, each actor turns in a nuanced performance.
As Eleanor, Gracie Finley gets the best lines. She demonstrates cold and calculating menace and obsessive self-regard, while still convincingly drawing out demonstrations of desire for her affection and love from her family. Described as “Medea to the teeth,” she makes it believable that she could slaughter her children. “I don’t much like our children,” she admits, and elicits laughter, but will the savvy queen metaphorically sacrifice so much? (Having read the history and seen the movie, I was still on the knife’s edge trying to remember or guess how the play would end.)
As the sons, John (goofy), Richard (staunch), and Geoffrey (sly), Alex Furber, Robert Tsonos, and Jonathan Widdifield portray them all betimes worthy of affection and betimes worthy of scorn, with Widdifield’s Geoffrey a particularly consistent and strong portrayal. As Alais, at first innocent, Leah Pritchard finds some icy resolve in the mistress as winter chills the family. Brian Bisson’s Phillip seems mostly an observer until his central, flawless scene with his old lover, Richard.
And the lion himself, Henry, a Lear in reverse who refuses to divide his kingdom for his children, nonetheless faces betrayal by his children. John Dartt closes the second act wrenchingly, affectingly, hauntingly. An actor’s moment, performed to perfection. As Eleanor has foreshadowed with scorn, “Oh, what a desolation. What a life’s work.”
Funny, tragic, and strong, The Lion in Winter’s political machinations as family drama are ideal for the small stage at The Watermark. The actors pitch us into the enclosed, cold space of Henry’s castle at Chinon, drawing a shiver out of a warm summer night. Merry Christmas.