Lion in Winter
By James Goldman
Directed by Eric Petersen
“…the only way to be a King, fifty and alive, all at once.”
There is always a back-story to a historic play, even one predicated on a concept that historically never took place. Such is the case with James Goldman’s play, “Lion in Winter.” The setting is King Henry II’s palace at Chinon, France at Christmastime, 1183. Henry has assembled his family for the celebration in order to ascertain once and for all his succession. He is the first Plantagenet ruler of Britain and its continental holdings, including — obscurely — Aquitaine, still in the possession of his estranged and imprisoned wife, Queen Eleanor. They have three surviving sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John, each of whom feels his qualifications outrank the other two. Also in residence is the new king of France, Phillip, the son of Eleanor’s first husband and the baby brother of Alais, engaged to the heir-apparent of England and the mistress of King Henry, father of her fiancée.
This is an uncomfortable combination of antagonists, made more so by the inclusion in the party of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine herself, on a release/hold from her prison cell. In the hands of Goldman, these seven people emerge as witty, Noel Coward-like characters in funny garb who sting with words and threaten with knives and dance through a contorted vision of what life might have been like had they all convened to do what Henry has asked of them. He wants a divorce and has arranged an interview with the Pope (shades of Henry VIII to come). Nobody is interested in doing what he asks and each has an agenda all his or her own. It takes a talented crew of actors and director to make this all work as it should, with poignant style and dexterous engagement. Fortunately, at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont, just such a group has convened to take the challenge.
Ethan Botwick is the young French King who brings to the party some unexpected talents at negotiation. His choices surprise Henry and delight Eleanor who takes a pseudo-motherly pride in the boy’s way of countering her husband’s thrusts. Botwick employs a slight French inflection and makes his character a standout in a group of highly talented players. It is his earlier relationship with Richard the Lionheart that calls into question some of the suppositions brought to the table and helps to enlighten our understanding of the political dynamics at play. Unlike other Phillips I have seen, Botwick makes less of their boyhood sexuality and more of their loyalty and devotion to ideals. It works very nicely.
Richard is played by the dynamic and overwhelmingly attractive Andrew Krug who uses his physical power and his deep, dark voice to create a very memorable Prince Richard. The man who will one day inspire the adventures of Robin Hood, the love of Berengaria and the devotion of a nation is seen in a very different light in this play. Krug keeps his character on target one hundred percent of the time and though he is surrounded by fine actors on all sides, he is almost always at the center of things. The play is about the twilight of Henry II and, if we know our history we know who will become King, but in this production Richard has become the focus mostly through the work of this young actor.
His brothers are played by Jason Asprey and Christopher Restino. Rarely have I witnessed a powerful performance of Geoffrey who is usually a bit of a weasel. Here, Asprey takes on a very kingly performance and he makes this weakling into a powerhouse of wonderful ideas and actions. It is a very commanding piece of acting and well worth seeing as it alters everything we know about this play and about Geoffrey’s role. Restino is a delight as the mewling and puking John, the man who will one day be forced to sign into law a declaration that changes our concept of government forever. Restino is almost a comic figure in the role, but still manages to convey the pathos of the young man who is his father’s declared favorite.
The three figures at the center of the storm, and storm producers themselves, are Henry, Eleanor and Alais. Each is undertaken by an actor at the top of their game. Elizabeth Aspenlieder plays the younger woman whose charms have caught her a King for a swain. Of all the characters in the play she is the least manipulative and yet her beauty, charm and natural wit continually entrance Henry and motivate his decisions. Aspenlieder plays this with subtlety and a dryness that excludes humor and gives her character a semblance of honesty that is undeniable. She is a brilliant choice for the role and her work is never less than commanding.
Nigel Gore brings dynamics to Henry that evoke our sympathy, our anger, our own sense of humility and an almost distant feeling of remembrance, as though we have faced his choices somehow in our own lives. He is as engaging a King Henry as could possibly be found. When he is playing at lover with his Queen he is amusing and sweet; when he is playing at jailor and inquisitor with her he is revolting and attractive. Gore plays the internal story of this man with such power that it seems to eke from his pores into the unattractive, almost monklike clothing he wears. Every bit of him reeks of character and every word he speaks feels natural and real. It is quite a performance.
It is the role of Eleanor that is a make or break for this play. Christine Decker (and I keep saying this about her work) was born to play Eleanor. She has a natural flair for these roles and in this one she is above reproach and beyond belief. It is as though she has channeled this woman out of the dark ages and brought her back to life in Vermont. Like no one else on stage she appears to be wearing her own clothing, moving in her own environment and playing her life out again with her actual family. This is an achievement like nothing I have ever seen before.
Eric Peterson has directed this production in the round brilliantly. He is fortunate in the casting — no one could have been better in any of these roles. He has the additional aid of a wonderful team of designers: set and lighting by the talented Kenneth Mooney; fabulous costumes by Jenny Fulton; original music and sound design by Alexander Sovronsky. Gore, Asprey, Aspenlieder and Sovronsky are all members of the corps at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and their work up north really has surpassed their work in The Berkshires. Perhaps it is the inspiration of a director who brings other dynamics to the work.
Even if you think you know this play well, even if you love the film with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, you owe it to yourself to get to Bennington and see the best realization ever of this play.
The Lion in Winter plays at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main Street, Bennington, Vt., through October 11. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line to www.oldcastletheatre.org.