Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Lion in Winter Expertly Staged at Shakespeare Theatre

Also see Bob's review of An Iliad

Sherman Howard and Laura Campbell
Looking back to 1183 when Henry II sat on the British throne, The Lion in Winter, like the plays of Shakespeare, hurtles us forward into the modern world. Shakespeare achieves his modernity by illuminating that which is universal and timeless in the lives of his protagonists in uniquely well composed language. Writing 350 years after the death of Shakespeare, Lion author James Goldman employs 20th century style, sensibility and language to contemporize the 12th century. While it may take a short while to adjust to hearing anachronistic contemporary language in the mouths of his Plantagenet, Lion is chock full of literate wit and wisdom, and the words effectively fulfill the play's design.

It is Christmas and King Henry has gathered family for a Christmas celebration at his palace at Chinon, France (much of modern France was under English rule at this time). In attendance are his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three sons: Richard, Geoffrey and John. Eleanor is attending despite the fact that she has been imprisoned in a castle tower in the English countryside since ten years earlier having led an insurrection against Henry which was intended to place their oldest son Henry on the throne.

Henry and Eleanor's son, Henry, died of natural causes a year ago. Although, Henry has yet to name a successor, he is determined to name John, his weak and incompetent 16 year old, youngest son. The heir apparent would appear to be now eldest son, 26 year old Richard. Richard has shown strength and skill in battle. Possibly, Henry resents Richard's impetuousness as well as his insurrection a decade earlier. Twenty-five year old Geoffrey has become Richard's aide-de-camp, but as the intrigue mounts and alliances shift, Geoffrey reveals his willingness to shift his allegiance to advance his own position.

Then, there is 23 year old Alais, who was raised by Eleanor and Henry since the age of 7 when the then King of France signed a treaty calling for her to marry their oldest son and become Queen of England. Since Eleanor was sent to that tower, Alais has become Henry's devoted mistress. Henry intends for her to marry John, while remaining his lover. The party is completed by the arrival of Philip II, the 17 year old, three-year incumbent King of France. Brother to Alais. Philip demands that, unless heir apparent Richard marries Alais immediately, England return land ceded to her in the treaty which brought Alais to England.

With the exception of Alais, everyone has the long knife out (some literally), ready to strike. Both Henry and Eleanor are wily and ruthlessly ambitious with long standing grievances against each other. Their children have grievances of their own. Although crowns are at stake, we can all recognize family dynamics (i.e., sibling rivalries) as they exist today. Henry will remind you of today's duplicitous, take no prisoners politicians with his brazen, smooth and shameless lies. However, this is no Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as more than a few critics have suggested. The latter is lacerating and cuts deeply and painfully. Although Lion is substantially accurate historically, the mood is playful, and the successfully realized goal is high style, literate entertainment. The characters of the protagonists are the invention of the author. Here, Henry and Eleanor exude charm, and enjoy their bons mots and battles.

The performance of Sherman Howard masterfully sets the tone for this production. His Henry II is a monarch who has the key to enjoying life. Closely observing and savoring all that goes on about him, Howard's Henry robustly appreciates the ability and cleverness of his opponents, and relishes the opportunity to joust with them. When Henry's cold-blooded willingness to do anything to achieve his ends reaches its limit, our understanding of the meaning of family and parenthood combines with Howard's performance to make his restraint convincing.

Lisa Harrow launches a charm offensive on both Henry and the viewer. Simultaneously, Harrow subtly conveys an underlying steeliness which makes it clear that Eleanor is always seeking a way to open the door to her prison.

Tom Pelphrey as the able and determined Richard; Devin Norik as the silently dissatisfied, quietly conniving Geoffrey; and Colby Chambers as the petulant and unworthy John make sizable contributions to the production's seamless excellence.

Sean Hudock deftly captures the gradually revealed strength of young Philip. Hudock's boy monarch at first fools Henry into thinking of him as callow. However, it isn't long until he reveals that he is a fearsome foe without removing the smile from his face. Laura Campbell is a vulnerable and sincere Alais.

Director Paul Mullins has created a lively, well integrated ensemble performance from his cast. There is much movement (particularly from Howard's restless Henry, which effectively adds liveliness without distracting from the text). Michael Schweikardt's colorful and flexible set includes two multi-use lattice work panels, curtains (red and gold; green and gold) and a large wall composed of stones, a raised stage with a circular disc front and center, and platforms on either side. It is eye-catching and allows for different settings. Its effectiveness is abetted by Michael Giannitti's evocative lighting. Hugh Hanson's light, classic costumes are attractive and eminently playable.

Despite all the amusing lines in the play, I was most impressed by one rather despairing line that is not only wise, but provides a bracing antidote to its oft quoted opposite: "There's everything in life but hope."

After seeing The Lion in Winter, you will likely want to know who succeeded Henry II on the British throne, the monarchy of Philip of France, and whether Eleanor ever got out of her tower prison. If you do not now know, you will be in for some interesting surprises. This is a nice post viewing bonus available to Lion attendees.

The Lion in Winter is a witty, literate comedy which turns 12th century English history into delightful entertainment and holds up a mirror to contemporary family relationships.

The Lion in Winter continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees.: Saturday and Sunday 2 pm) through November 14, 2010, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online:

The Lion in Winter by William Goldman; directed by James Goldman

Henry II, King of England.....................Sherman Howard
Alais Capet............................................Laura Campbell
John.....................................................Colby Chambers
Geoffrey.......................................................Devin Norik
Richard.....................................................Tom Pelphrey
Eleanor of Aquitaine....................................Lisa Harrow
Philip Capet, King of France......................Sean Hudock

Photo: © Gerry Goodstein

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