The Lion in Winter

The Lion in Winter
By James Goldman. Villanova Players. Ron Hurley Theatre, Brisbane. 7 to 22 November 2020

Well, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a family argument – or two – would it? And when your family is ruling the United Kingdom and parts of France in 1183, then you might have more to argue about than most. James Goldman’s 1966 play, The Lion in Winter, takes a snapshot of the age-old dilemma of royal succession from the Plantagenet family. The dramatic events take place over Christmas at a castle in France, as King Henry II and his wife (imprisoned under house arrest), Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, tangle and tussle, scheming to secure their own choice for heir to the throne. It doesn’t help matters that much of Henry’s wealth comes from his estranged wife’s side of the family and her annulled marriage with Louis VII, former King of France. Guests in the castle, and pawns in the royal shenanigans, are Louis’s son, Philip II, now the young King of France, and his sister, Alais, who also happens to be Henry’s mistress, but betrothed to Henry’s sons, Richard or John – whoever gets to sit on the throne first!

But this is no dull history lesson. It is a fun production, with a medieval pan-pipes-and-lute covers of juke-box hits setting the scene before the stage lights go up. Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’ is particularly pertinent! There’s witty dialogue and black humour aplenty – nearly 10 years ahead of Monty Python and around 15 years earlier than the Black Adder troupe made medieval comedy de rigueur in the late 20th century. Of course, Goldman’s work is more than 350 years after William Shakespeare dug up the Plantagenet family tree, and while the back story makes East Enders look tame, the play’s dialogue and machinations are modern, entertaining and a pure delight. Director Roslyn Johnson has done a marvellous job presenting this complex comedy – one she says has been on her ‘bucket list’. This feeling was obviously shared by a generous audience – almost a packed house at the Ron Hurley Theatre, even with social distancing measures still in place – who laughed and gasped and enjoyed every moment, even if the play’s actions are sometimes repetitive and could benefit from a slight trim.

This ensemble cast is very strong. Fiona Kennedy shines as Queen Eleanor, magnifying every quip while staying true to the character – after all this Queen was wealthy in her own right and one of the most powerful women of her times. She is no pushover, but the love and respect she retains for her husband is heartfelt and genuine. As King Henry, Brent Schon gets across the cold regal personality and sense that Henry’s mid-life crisis might be as much to do with his own fragile mortality as his Kingly eagerness to show that he can still scheme, negotiate and wage war – a talent honed since his teens. Having the most fun are the three actors playing the royal spoiled sons – each affecting an air of arrogance that comes from truly believing oneself to be the rightful choice as future King. Michael McNish as eldest son, Richard has a Shakespearean tone and handles the comedy in a devinely blank style; Gabriel King as Geoffrey is surely the epitome of the attention-seeking ‘middle son’; and Nikolai Stewart as youngest son, John, is hilarious at times as the spoiled brat who would be perfect as a sword-wielding crusader and heir, if only he was braver – and not so short! Despite the humour, all three performers portray the underlying anguish of being sons who have grown up with privilege but not the privilege of feeling loved.

Supporting players, Oscar Kennedy-Smith and Lillian Dowdell, command the stage with confidence befitting Philip II and his sister, Alais, both characters forced by fate and circumstance to become shameless schemers. Dowdell in particular gives the impression that her Alais is a survivor and not to be trifled with. The costumes by Leo Bradley, Robert Spence and Desley Nichols add medieval appeal – as do the scene-shifters, in period garb, with some taking on their own cameo roles in the shadows in a Pythonesque style that the audience loved.

The Lion in Winter is Villanova’s 313th production and a welcome return to the stage after the lockdown period. Director, Roslyn Johnson says: “Welcome back to live theatre. There really is nothing else that touches people’s minds and hearts this way.” Villanova Players’ upcoming 2021 season also promises lots of fun with Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, Ronald Harwood’s Quartet, Vivien Leigh’s School for Scandal, and Summer Rain by Nick Enright and Terence Clarke, plus their Short & Sharp season featuring Ninety by Joanna Murray-Smith, a Chekhov double bill, and Marjory Forde’s Snapshots from Home.

Beth Keehn

Photos: Christopher Sharman

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