This Lion Roars: The Lion in Winter at the Court Theatre

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Spend more than 30 seconds engaging with contemporary American culture, and you’ll be reminded that we live in a particularly fractious time. Much of our current political strife derives from the conflict between a sclerotic, aging ruling class that refuses to cede an iota of its power and the increasing desperation of the younger generations it tries to control. Appropriately, then, the Court Theatre’s clear-eyed new production of James Goldman’s venerable play The Lion in Winter allows the audience to draw these parallels between our present madness and similar machinations and travails of a medieval English royal family.  

The Lion in Winter, Goldman’s masterpiece, weaves together many disparate generic threads into a dense quilt. Most clearly a history play in the Shakespearean fashion, Goldman blends fact and fiction to tell the story of Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England, and his refusal to name an heir during the royal family’s Christmas court. Eldest son Richard the Lionheart has the support of Henry’s estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom the king has kept imprisoned for the better part of a decade. Henry’s favorite is the youngest, John, whose loyalty makes up for his pock-marked and unwashed grossness. Middle son Geoffrey, the cleverest of the trio, is forced to use his wit to compensate for his lack of familial support. Amidst the jockeying, the young king Philip of France has arrived to demand Henry make good on his promise to marry the French princess Alais to one of his sons. Henry is reluctant to do so, however, because he’s fallen in love, or at least lust, with the young woman himself.

Goldman leavens the weight of all this political intrigue with doses of manor house comedy, Agatha Christie-esque mystery, and even door-slamming farce. (Odd for such a thoroughly English product to come from an American writer.) Given these disparate elements, The Lion in Winter presents a formidable challenge. How do you unify so many literary trends in a single piece while also making a 60-ish-year-old play about a 1000-year-old monarch speak to an audience today? Henry tells his sons that the royal family constitutes the nation writ small; that is, whatever they do finds an echo in the wider political world. So, the play asks, can these power-hungry jackals find a way to work out their problems?

Director Ron OJ Parson’s impressively versatile staging ably meets the play on its own terms. He and the actors find moments of subtlety to tease out the motivations behind the characters’ actions. For instance, the show opens with Henry and Alais laying out the exposition and stakes of the conflict. When we meet Henry, brought to life with wonderful mischievousness by John Hoogenakker, Parson has him center stage, doing push-ups. He then wearily, but with great relish, adorns himself with the markers of his office as king–broadsword, robes, crown, and the like–before heading into battle with the family. This Henry may be a lion in winter, but he’s still dangerous because he lives for the thrill of combat. Likewise, when Eleanor later needles him by accusing him of being scared of dying, we know it’s true.

That’s not to say every scene is a paragon of psychological restraint, though. In a later scene, Philip hides all three of the scheming sons around his bedchamber when Henry pays him a visit to negotiate. As characters reveal secrets and betrayals accrue, the scene unfolds with as much zany brio as a Marx Brothers film. It’s this versatility that keeps the play, which is quite dense and plot-heavy, from getting bogged down in details.       

Of course, that’s also a testament to the skills of the show’s cast, who bring these scheming devils to life with relish. The Lion in Winter is a playground for actors, a world in which words are weapons and every moment is packed with tension. In the hands of lesser performers, this could easily be the stuff of high school drama, just so much empty speechifying. The talented ensemble here digs into the text – and one another – with the enthusiasm of a hungry uncle tucking into a Christmas spread. 

Each of the three sons has a different approach to the political game that reveals their relative fitness to rule. Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton plays John as a petulant and moody teenager who sees the entire situation as a game. His ability to change his affect in a moment as he perceives himself to be winning or losing leads to a great deal of comedy, and his hunched, lurky physicality makes everyone, both onstage and in the audience, wonder why Henry thinks he can be king. By contrast, Shane Kenyon plays Richard as a meatheaded jock who wants to solve every problem with his sword, though he’s like John in that he can’t control his emotions and flies into a rage easily. His emotionally stunted, quick-tempered disposition makes a tender scene between him and Anthony Baldasare’s unctuous, politically savvy Philip all the more moving – and Philip’s betrayal even more shocking. Brandon Miller’s Geoffrey, the most cunning of the three princes, is a hilarious dervish of intellectual action and wordplay in a role that could all too easily fade into the background.

Of course, any production of this play will succeed based primarily on the strength of the relationship between Henry and Eleanor, and this production doesn’t disappoint on that score. Hoogenakker brings a vitality to the role that suggests that yes, while Henry loves power, it’s more that he loves being the king. He loves the gamesmanship and political maneuvering that comes with ruling. He refuses to name an heir less because he can’t bear the thought of a world without him, but because he can’t bear the thought of not being in the world. The intellectual playfulness he finds in the role makes the contrasting moments when he snaps, like the end of the first act in which he curses and disowns his sons, terrifying because he prides himself on staying in control. He also loves Eleanor, despite himself, because she’s the only worthy rival he has. 

Rebecca Spence’s Eleanor is more than a match for this Henry, a fire-and-brimstone queen whose power is evident from the moment she arrives. Yet it’s in some of the smaller moments that Spence’s work here shines the most. In the solitude of her chamber, adorning herself with the royal jewels – including an uproarious joke perfectly delivered – we see the sadness that’s come from her exile. By the end of the scene, however, she’s restored to her full glory. When she says that she can’t bear to lose Henry, we have to wonder whether it’s the truth or another angle of attack. Does she want Richard on the throne, or does she just want the restoration of her marriage? Spence’s performance thrives on the ambiguities present in the text and is all the better for it. 

The script does show its age, however, in its treatment of Alais. She’s painfully underwritten and exists as a prop for the other characters to manipulate. Netta Walker’s performance finds some moments to destabilize this textual weakness, though, such as a surprising moment in which she drives a dagger into a table to make a point that her relative powerlessness actually makes her more dangerous. Her most touching moment, however, comes at the top of the second act, when she and Eleanor sing a Christmas carol together and try to reconcile over their love for the same man. It’s a small, human moment in a play that’s mostly about big, political ideas, but it’s no less affecting for its size.

At the play’s conclusion, this production finds some optimism in an exchange when Henry says to Eleanor, “I hope we never die.” The affairs of state are no closer to being settled, but perhaps the family has healed just a bit. Parson leaves the audience with the image of the king’s broadsword driven into a chest, his crown placed atop it, alone onstage. Henry will die, but the nation will continue, one way or another. Pray we can all find such moments of redemption in a turbulent time.  

The Lion in Winter is presented by the Court Theatre and is now playing at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue through December 3rd. Performance times vary; check the website at the Court Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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