Theatre Review - 'The Lion in Winter'

Posted on: 29 November 2011 by Alexander Hay

A right royal family Christmas becomes a family at war in which an empire is the prize in Trevor Nunn’s disappointing revival of James Goldman’s 1966 play The Lion in Winter (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Scheming, back-stabbing and betrayal - most family Christmasses ever, if we're being honestIt is 1183 and Henry II is considering the future of his kingdom. His choice of successor is his puny youngest son Prince John who, although full of ambition, lacks the necessary authority.

Henry’s estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitane, who has been in prison for a decade, meanwhile favours their more regal son Richard. Neither considers Prince Geoffrey, who will have to be satisfied with a subsidiary position.

So the yuletide celebration turns into a combat zone of deceit, betrayal and bitter power games, with Henry’s mistress, Princess Alais, acting as a convenient pawn. The outcome, though, is a weary, exhausted stalemate.

This play became a well-known film in 1968, starring Katherine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins. But the current stage revival lacks the spark that made the movie a success and now looks hollow, with little relevance to a contemporary audience.

In particular, the dialogue seems awkward and anachronistic, as for example when Eleanor says to one of her sons, “you are so deceitful, you can’t even ask for water when you’re thirsty”, with pseudo-smart one-liners such as “in a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible”

The politics of family life are conveyed mainly through set pieces but the ironies and rhetorical switch backs do not allow much sense of either character or dramatic urgency.

What holds this piece together is a fine central performance by Robert Lindsay who, with resonant voice, heroic swagger, and a sense of wounded pride, certainly cuts a dash as Henry.  Joanna Lumley also does a good job of delivering Goldman’s one liners with the right snap, crackle and pop, hinting at s a devious mind lurking beneath the surface. Convincing support, meanwhile, is provided by Tom Bateman, James Norton and Joseph Drake as their three sons, and Sonya Cassidy as the King’s mistress.

But while one can see the opportunities the offers as a star vehicle for two of our leading actors it is hard to see why this work warrants revival.

Plays until January 28 2012

Box office: 0845 481 1870

Press: Premier PR  0207 292 8330

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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