Fort Worth — Amazing to realize that Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre is marking the 50th anniversary (that’s a half century, folks!) of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, which took a cast of characters from Shakespeare’s wheelhouse, gave them language Shaw or O’Neill might have claimed…and knocked the audiences of 1966 right off their pins.
Goldman’s witty and dramatic “contemporizing” of the 12th-century English royals—King Henry, Queen Eleanor and the boys—echoed down the years in a cluster of plays, films and television series; in fact, the current Fox hit Empire is an open riff on the Lion family set in the modern music industry. And of course the play’s first productions—on Broadway with Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, on film with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn—have always been a hard act to follow.
But TART’s energetic and literate production, thoughtfully directed by company head Allen Walker, holds its own quite well at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Sanders Theatre, giving us a Henry and Eleanor worn down by life, love and the inexorable march of the years. There’s no film-star glamour here—just the latest battle of two insanely headstrong wills who fell in love in an instant (he was a visiting young Count, she the beautiful Queen of France), and “shattered the commandments on the spot.” That’s where most stories end; The Lion in Winter tells of the long years after.
Robert Banks gives a confident, compelling performance as Henry II, the first of England’s hard-living Plantagenet kings. Soft-spoken and smart as hell, this King Henry keeps the lid on his dysfunctional family—one crown, three sons, and a wife he locked up years ago—less by bellowing than by leaning in to whisper a few deadly or seductive words in someone’s ear. Oh, the knives come out eventually, but war-wise Henry seems more than a match for his sons…though perhaps not for that “boy” who lately inherited the French crown.
Laura Jones’ Eleanor has a stony strength that masks her pain at being supplanted by Henry’s other loves. First it was a legendary beauty Rosamond, and now the French princess Alais (Laura Lester), once like a daughter to Eleanor, and now Henry’s mistress. When Eleanor raised an army against him, Henry imprisoned her—and this temporary reprieve to spend Christmas 1183 with the family is an unfamiliar taste of freedom. How many plots, one wonders, can one woman hatch during a family reunion?
Three princes crowd in under the same roof with Mum and Dad: Eleanor’s favorite Richard (Andrew Manning), he of the lion heart and fierce fighting skills; Henry’s favorite John (Haulston Mann), a scatter-brained and easily led boy; and Geoffrey (Kyle Lester), the clever and conniving middle son his parents tend to forget. The trio of actors carve out distinct portrayals. They look and feel like competitive brothers, elbowing, shoving, eyeing one another trying to figure out when to jump…or be jumped.
The princes’ heat plays off the cool of young French king Louis (Allen Dean), who is determined to out-strategize Henry, the man who humiliated his royal father by capturing his Queen—and a sizeable chunk of France. (Eleanor was the ruler of her own territory, the Aquitaine.) Louis has a past that involves Richard, and Manning and Dean play a devastating short scene that gives us a taste of how far each man will go to get what he wants. Lester’s Alais, the French king’s sister, seems at first no more than a pretty toy—but as events threaten her future with Henry, she shows a fighter’s heart and a ferocity that surprises.
At bottom, of course, this is a family drama writ large by the “day jobs” of the characters—and made memorable by Goldman’s way with quips, barbs, and witty lines. It isn’t quite clear how he pulls off the neat trick of keeping these characters medieval and modern at the same moment…but there it is. Stop to analyze, and you’d have to wonder how short Lion in Winter might have been if only there’d been a psychiatrist in the castle.
Ah, well, more fun to have broadswords and crowns (there’s a glittering one at center stage when the play begins) and princes hiding behind tapestries.
As is his wont, director Walker punctuates the action with re-purposed film music that holds our attention without going too Game of Thrones. It’s a choice, and it works. Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes are impressively tied to character, from Alais’ peachy tones to Richard’s Goth blacks. And Alex Krus’ set design—columns, slabs and arches of worked gray stones—move into more formations than a half-time band, and are dramatically lit by Bryan S. Douglas.
No O’Toole, no Hepburn. Just a word-perfect cast doing some flat-out good acting—and reminding us what a great script can do if treated with the TLC it deserves.