by Sam PritchardFamous film or not, The Lion in Winter is a bad idea. The play describes the tortuous family conflict between Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons. It is a sort of cross between a Shakespeare history play and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Don’t let that give you a mistaken impression of its quality. Goldman’s idea is to combine his historical setting with the dialogue of a modern domestic drama.
The problem is that this dialogue is crap. It veers from the tediously melodramatic to lines that the writer seems to have mistaken for the witty and razor sharp exchanges of political negotiation. Chief among its irritating qualities is the incessant repetition of the phrase: “You’re good”, as characters compliment each other on the success of their scheming. Another lowlight is the baffling and horrific love scene between the King of France and Richard the Lionheart (yep, the crusade one). The young king talks about “that hunting trip” when their illicit love was first broached and proceeds to nuzzle with the Lionheart.
It took me a while to decide what I thought about The Lion in Winter because Harriet Bradley’s production did such a good job of shouldering all the blame. The performances can be divided into the extremely lazy or ridiculously mannered. The former camp is well represented by Toby Pitts-Tucker as Richard. He occupies the part without character or intonation and looks entirely vacant throughout. Brian McMahon and Sam Bright ably provide the more mannered elements of the performance. Both indulge in copious amounts of hands-behind-the-back acting and over-emphatic cackling. They negotiate like two squabbling Latin teachers, with none of the gravitas you would expect from two monarchs.
The rest of the cast indulge in more of the same. Katie Leviten has some sense of poise and authority as Queen Eleanor, but rather than build a character she simply vamps up her lines in a style borrowed from the Wicked Witch of the West. The lethargic and monotonous pace of the whole exercise did nothing but frustrate the development of these performances even further.
More than anything else, The Lion in Winter is a product of negligent direction. Even if you call it “minimalistic” and “stripped-back”, filling the BT with some tables and chairs does not amount to a design. I would find it hard to believe that much time had been spent properly thinking about this play, its characters, story and politics. Asking four or five pounds for a production that is so profoundly lazy and ill-conceived seems pretty inappropriate. After all, Hollyoaks is on every night next week, and it’s better, shorter, sharper and freer than this mess.