"I know, I know you know, I know you know I know, we know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family."
And so it goes. The rivalries, hostilities, emotional manipulation, bargaining, maneuvering, and petty bickering within a royal family which surrounded the politics of succession some 800 odd years ago still, alas, have a contemporary ring. For then as now, with a kingdom at stake and three heirs, any one of whom could claim the throne, what enterprising young prince would not make just a little extra effort to assure personal success?
The story told in The Lion in Winter, opening tonight in its first Broadway revival at the Roundabout Stage Right, is that of Henry II, King of England, championing his youngest son John against his oldest son Richard, who is controlled by the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, for the English crown. And there is also Geoffrey, the middle son, Phillip, the French King, and Alais, a French princess to deal with; each in their own way and for their own reasons ready to join in the endless machinations which heat the air at this bitterly cold Christmas Court.
The original Broadway production of Lion in 1966 was considered to be sophisticated drama with its blending of historical fact and anachronistic and witty dialogue. (The 1968 film version starring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn is still thought to be a minor classic.) However, the intervening 33 years, culminating in a millennial culture all too aware that a majority of emotionally damaging, physically violent and fatal acts most often occur within a family unit, have now made us wary of this sort of bravura glorification of one-upmanship, infighting, and familial politics. Dressing it all up in 13th century costume doesn't hide the ugly fact that these predatory games are still played today, albeit without perhaps quite as much relish. (Or, do you suppose, that's what James Goldman had in mind all along?)
To witness this play in live performance - to experience the underlying emotional savagery inherent in the plot and spoken word in the intimacy of a small theatre, as presented by a cast of exceptionally strong actors - is now very close to an appalling experience. Certainly a guilty pleasure at best. No matter how forcibly one attempts to put aside two decades worth of social conditioning and indoctrination by PC terrorists, one cannot these days feel completely comfortable laughing at, savoring, or recommending this play without qualifications. (However, those persons without any social conscience whatsoever should enjoy themselves immensely.)
This is an excellent production full of powerful, complicated, and enthralling performances. Laurence Fishburne's Henry II is the heart of a terrible storm, threatening to lay waste a kingdom, and all those he holds dear, in the name of a possible but theoretical peace. Lear-like in its intensity and resolve, this Henry will have his way at whatever cost.
Stockard Channing's Eleanor is his equal, a force of nature bent and twisted by the events of her life into a woman for whom maternal love is just another weapon to be used judiciously, a sword to stir her caldron of bile; a poison she serves with lavish flair as proof of her eternal influence and power.
The actors playing the three princes, Chuma Hunter-Gault (Richard Lionheart), Neal Huff (Geoffrey), and Keith Nobbs (John), while individually interesting, are at their best when pitted against each other and their parents. It is then when each displays the fine pitch and highly colored threads of character they collectively weave into a heavy, rough cloth, a tapestry of bitterness and ambition far too easily recognized by any audience member whoever suffered injustice at the hands of a sibling or parent.
Emily Bergl as Alais and Roger Howarth as Philip are a studied and effective counterpoint as the outsiders who attempt to play the games but fail because they were not taught the rules while suckling at Eleanor's breast. If mere association with these Plantagenets breeds corruption, Alais and Philip show how quickly the seduction takes place.
The direction, by Michael Mayer, seems mercifully minimal, allowing the actors a great range which is well used. The set, by David Gallo, and costumes, by Michael Krass, are utilitarian and non-intrusive as befits the Roundabout house style. The lighting, by Kenneth Posner, makes everything a great deal more attractive than it really is. The sound, by Mark Bennett, is appropriate to the occasion.
The Lion in Winter by James Goldman. Directed by Michael Mayer. Set by David Gallo. Costumes by Michael Krass. Lighting by Kenneth Posner. Sound by Mark Bennett.
Theatre: Roundabout Theatre, Stage Right, 1530 Broadway at 45th Street
Dates and times: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 P.M., Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 P.M. (7 P.M. performances March 12, & 13 and May 11, 12, 13, & 14. Additional performances May 2 and May 9 at 7:30 P.M. No Wednesday matinee April 28 and May 5.) LIMITED ENGAGEMENT through May 30.
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes
Tickets: All seats $60. Tickets are available by calling Roundabout Theatre Ticket Services at (212) 719-1300 or at the Box Office, 1530 Broadway (at 45th Street).