“You will take what Daddy gives you”
I have to start this review off with an apology to my Medieval History A-Level teacher Mrs Grist. Despite having spent two years studying the subject, and writing an extended essay on the Capetian King Philip Augustus (who appears as a young man in this play), precious little of the detail has remained in my head. Fortunately James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter, Trevor Nunn’s latest entry in his Theatre Royal Haymarket season, has a rather loose basis in history, coming from the Philippa Gregory-type school of soapy melodrama rather striving for historical accuracy, and so the vagueness of my recollections was just fine as this ends up being more of an Ayckbourn-style domestic conflict piece – Season’s Greetings but with a cast of historical royals instead.
Things get off to a rather shaky start with a huge amount of backstory text scrolling up the screen, which is surrounded by the cheapest-looking holly border straight out of a clip-art folder. It is a rather unwieldy way to convey a ton of information which if significant, ought to be clear anyway from strong playwriting. But in a nutshell, the play is set at Christmastime 1183 in the château of Chinon, Anjou in Western France where Henry II of England has kept his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, prisoner for a decade after she led a rebellion against him. Accompanying the warring couple are their three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John, who are all competing for their father’s favour in order to be named his successor and their guest, King Philip II of France, whose half-sister Alais just happens to be Richard’s fiancée and Henry’s mistress. And for two and a half hour, they all jockey for position with each other, trying to work out who will end up on top.
Despite the historical context, it’s actually quite a light-hearted romp which revels in its anachronisms – there’s a Christmas tree complete with neatly wrapped presents – and its modern approach to motherhood and love. Nunn has cast quite cleverly in employing Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley as the central couple as they both seem to be having a ball and fit quite neatly into the entertainment role – this isn’t heavyweight, serious stuff by any means, but then it has no pretensions to be so and Lumley in particular is fantastic as the most regal yet still slightly camp Eleanor. Instead, we get the battle of wills between Henry and Eleanor as he flaunts his mistress in front of her and the squabbling between the three sons: Richard (the Lionheart), his mother’s favourite; John (he of the Magna Carta), his father’s preferred son; and Geoffrey, the other one. The play burbles along quite nicely for the first half and reaches its comedic heights early in the second with an excellently executed scene, almost akin to farce, set in the King of France’s bedroom, full of unexpected twists, revelations and hiding places.
This is then followed by a rather touching scene of rueful reminiscence between Henry and Eleanor: Lindsay and Lumley bringing their experience to bear to suggest the passion that once lay there and the world of recriminations now in its place. But Goldman’s writing quickly begins to lose steam from here on as this scene goes on for far too long and the rest of the second half then lumbers its way to its end point, dragging its heels without any real sense of building to a dramatic crescendo. Tom Bateman makes a charismatic Richard, James Norton’s overlooked Geoffrey and Joseph Drake’s petulant John all have fun as the warring siblings (although I think Drake could afford to tone the spoilt brat notes down a little) in what end up as characters of relatively limited scope. Sonya Cassidy has an initial sweet naïveté but needs to work a little on a more convincing shift to the coldly calculating woman she’s meant to become; Rory Fleck-Byrne emerges well as the young French King learning quickly about his English rival’s game playing and stepping up to the mark himself.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design opens up the stage to some considerable depth to evoke the vast expanse of the castle chambers and corridors yet also keeping a claustrophobic intimacy as these family members drive each other up the wall. Once it becomes evident that The Lion in Winter is having fun with history and creating an immediately recognisable family drama, it actually becomes rather good fun, up to a point. There’s little that Nunn’s production can do when the play falls away at the aforementioned point early in the second half meaning that there was something of a slog to the end for me, but there’s definitely some entertainment along the way.