At the end of 1183, less than six years before his death and the end of his 34-year reign as King of England, Henry II holds a Christmas court at his castle in Chinon, France, giving his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a holiday reprieve and gathering his remaining three legitimate sons along with Alais Capet (sister of France’s Philip II), with whom Henry is having an affair even though she is set to marry his eldest, Richard the Lionheart. The queen has been locked up in the Tower of London for her role in a 1173 rebellion against Henry with their sons. Though the king pardoned the sons after putting down the rebellion, he never gave Eleanor her freedom.
This fraught holiday gathering (which didn’t actually take place) is the focus of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter at the Court Theatre, directed by Ron OJ Parson with an eye toward highlighting the story’s modern relevance, an effort which largely succeeds. He does this by, for instance, having the actors deliver their lines in unaccented English as they go about such familiar Christmas preparations as hanging coniferous boughs, drinking spiced wine and even, in Alais’ case, singing a carol.
The dysfunctional familial behavior on display certainly would not be out of place on reality TV. This Henry could easily be diagnosed as suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, while Eleanor (the smartest person in the castle) likely would be pegged as having borderline personality disorder. Once the scheming King Philip drops in, this combustible mix of personalities bursts fully into flames.
Henry, feeling ancient at 50, wants to choose an heir (likely his favorite son, John) who will maintain and even expand the impressive kingdom he has assembled, which includes a great deal of France. Eleanor wants to see her favorite, Richard, ascend to the throne. Middle son Geoffrey laments being iced out of both schemes. Clever young Philip is on hand to demand the return of the Vexin territory in Normandy if the wedding between Richard and his sister does not take place. Meanwhile, Henry plans to ask the pope to annul his marriage to Eleanor so he can marry Alais as a last kingly perk of old age.
Alliances shift at head-spinning speed as the kings set out to outmaneuver each other, and the queen sows chaos while the sons make one murderous plan after the next. Even Alais briefly turns against Henry when it appears he will accede to her marrying Richard. This leads Henry to complain, “I could have conquered Europe if I didn’t have women in my life.”
As Henry and Eleanor, John Hoogenakker and Rebecca Spence mostly refrain from chewing the tapestry. The choice to tack away from bombast and into the lacerating delivery of wickedly funny insults as they continue attacking each other in search of tactical advantage is a good one. There are professions of love, all hollow, but the king and queen do find an erotic spark in their sparring. One of the play’s funniest moments, at least to audience members of a certain age, comes when Henry begins to ravish a willing Eleanor as their latest argument reaches a fever pitch only to strain a leg muscle that forces him to immediately abandon his advance.
Their son Richard, who eventually will succeed to the throne after defeating Henry’s forces in 1189 with the help of John (a turn of events that may have hastened the brokenhearted Henry’s death three days later) is played with fierce intensity by Shane Kenyon, who radiates danger when he isn’t angrily brooding. As John, the youngest son and kingly favorite, Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton essays a petulant, anxiety-riddled young man who is always a few steps behind the other schemers in the family. As odd-man-out Geoffrey, the unfavored middle son, Brandon Miller comes across as sulky but proves to be a coldly calculating operator.
As King Philip, Anthony Baldasare seems to be aiming for wry deadpan, which he nails during a pivotal scene in act two, but there are stretches where his affect is oddly flat and monotone. As Alais, Netta Walker transforms from a lovestruck young woman without real agency into a hard-nosed negotiator employing lessons she learned from the queen who finished raising her after she was sent to the English court as a child. When seemingly tender Alais, now 23, tells Henry she’ll only marry him and try to bear a new heir if he locks away his other sons forever, the last viper darts its head from the nest and dysfunction reigns supreme.
Come to think of it, this is a good play to see in preparation for breaking bread with fractious, boorish relatives over the holidays.
The Lion in Winter runs through December 3 at Court Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Michael Brosilow