Handsome Production, Tedious Script: THE LION IN WINTER at Everyman Theatre

By: Oct. 30, 2022
Handsome Production, Tedious Script: THE LION IN WINTER at Everyman Theatre

Even though he didn't write it, I blame Robert Bolt for The Lion In Winter (currently to be seen at Everyman Theatre). It was Bolt's accomplishment in A Man For All Seasons (1960) to take a story that in its subject and plot could have been a Shakespeare history play, and to give its characters recognizably modern psyches and speech patterns that didn't seem obviously Shakespearean. No doubt James Goldman was inspired by this example to try taking another slice of medieval British royal history and apply the same approach in Lion (1968). But Lion demonstrates that to pull off Bolt's stunt you need more than modern characterizations and the absence of iambic pentameter. You need to know how to tell a story, and you need the language to be lyrical, even if it's not verse.

The need for a story is the acutest problem. A couple of hours of characters chewing the scenery won't ordinarily accomplish much if the characters don't end up accomplishing anything. Now note that I did say "ordinarily." An exception to this principle that I'm sure was on Goldman's mind when he was writing Lion was Edward Albee's 1962 sensation Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a couple of hours of characters chewing the scenery and not accomplishing anything - except for devastating audiences everywhere. In Virginia Woolf, though, while the characters may have been spinning their wheels, the playwright has accomplished much: the gradual exposition of the four principals' true depravity and the astonishing depth of their gamesmanship. We end up knowing far more about them by the end, and we are horrified by what we've learned. Goldman's script is engineered to tell us a lot but very little that's reliable about the inner nature of his characters, and to forbid them to develop meaningfully at all. Hence the result is not and cannot be devastating the way Albee's play was devastating.

The characters in Lion are all members of the English royal house of Plantagenet and/or the French royal house of Capet. The titular Lion is English King Henry II (1133-1189) (Jefferson A. Russell), surrounded his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Deborah Hazlett), and three of their children: Richard (later Richard I) (Grant Emerson Harvey), John (later King John) (Ben Ribler) and Geoffrey (Zack Powell). Intermingled with this group are the French King Philip II (Ryan Dalusung) and Alais, Philip's half-sister, Henry's mistress, and the fiancée of whomever it is politic to engage her to at the moment (Hannah Kelly). The occasion is a Christmas holiday gathering of the Plantagenet clan - in Chinon, a chateau where Henry has imprisoned his wife after she had joined forces with two of their sons to displace him, but failed. (The rebellion was historical, though the Christmas gathering at the castle is a fictional device to bring all the characters to the same place at the same time.) While family relationships exist, indeed abound, among this group, so do personal and dynastic ambitions. Apart from Alais, every guest at this particular party has experience exercising the powers of the head of state somewhere and/or is aspiring to become a head of state. And they all, Alais included (at least by the end), are inveterate plotters and schemers. Their ambitions make each the natural adversary of all the others, but their family ties do or should incline them to act as kin or lovers. In other words, everyone is simultaneously every else's friend, lover, or kinsman, and everyone else's foe.

And it is this dynamic, the opposed forces of self-interest and natural affinities, that Goldman exploits so relentlessly that he runs the whole enterprise into the ground. The characters are repeatedly professing their love for each other, or attraction to each other, or animus against each other - and then acting in ways that are totally inconsistent with their professed feelings. The fact (and it is historic) that Henry is imprisoning his wife after they had once been close enough for them to conceive several children together is emblematic of the tensions Goldman tries to play off. Their passion for each other, however staled by other relationships, still lingers - as do their dynastic struggles with each other, which have led to Eleanor's incarceration. But in every pair of characters, we keep shuttling back and forth between attraction or loyalty on the one hand and combat on the other. After a short while, there's no way to know what's supposedly real. And these are no garden variety ambivalences; these are flat-out contradictions, as a rule. There are no reliable affinities, and few reliable hatreds. It's not emotionally intelligible. We can come to understand the tortured marriage at the heart of Virginia Woolf, but nothing equivalent is possible with the marriage of Henry and Eleanor, or indeed the relationships of any other pair of the characters in this play.

And so, by the end, we're looking back and seeing that not only has nothing improved, but also that nothing has actually happened. Swords are drawn, but no one is cut or dies. There is much intrigue around various monarchies and duchies, leading to several secret agreements, but no one ends up throned or dethroned. There is talk of divorces and marriages, but no one's marital status changes or seems likely to do so soon. Collectively, this group of historical figures lived astonishingly eventful lives before and after the action of this play - and in the play we see no events at all, just a return to stasis. And so we're asking ourselves as we file out: What was the last two-plus hours for? Why did we bother with this journey? By contrast, Goldman's model A Man for All Seasons chronicles a struggle between Henry VIII's dynastic ambitions and Thomas More's conscience in which the parties have increasingly intensified their adherence to their respective positions, and More loses his head at the end but wins the struggle in undefined ways, about as substantial a change of positions as a playgoer could require. Here, nobody stands for anything or adheres to anything, and the ending is literally a freeze frame in which Henry and Eleanor are immobilized, signaling and perpetuating nothing but the paradox of their love/hate relationship. Which ain't much.

I recognize that mine is a minority opinion; Lion ran for a respectable 92 performances on Broadway and was revived on Broadway in 1999, has had many professional and amateur regional performances, and was made into a successful 1968 movie that garnered three Oscars and was remade for television in 2003. But I must just respectfully dissent. I had not encountered this show since seeing the movie when it came out (the screenplay was also by Goldman), and as I was exiting Everyman Friday night, I flashed back to my thoughts coming out of the movie theater then. I had felt the identical sense of bemusement. After two exposures over half a century apart that have led to the same result, I therefore have to stick by my view.

None of this is the fault of Everyman, I should add. This is a handsome and well-directed production, from the set which evokes the stonework and the internal timbering of a 12th-century chateau, with substantial-looking features including a chandelier, fireplace, arrases, and a canopied bed (courtesy of Dan Conway and his carpenter crew), to the choice of music cues (medieval-sounding with a driving pace), presumably selected by music director Kathy Ruvuna, to Vincent Lancisi's direction, which renders believable all the squabbling and the kissing-and-making-up (but not really) Goldman assigned the cast. Much credit is due to the cast, too, particularly Russell and Hazlett (pictured above), for their fortitude in sounding authentically inauthentic over and over again in their respective dealings with spouses, offspring, mistress, and French royalty. The sheer diligence that this task would call for was, I think, admired considerably by the audience.

But in the end, it was not enough. You not only have to have the talent to do the technical side of costume drama well, and have actors who can emote convincingly and then (in this case) reverse gears convincingly, and then reverse gears again as many times as the script calls for. You also need a script that doesn't make them do it so often it makes the audience stop following and stop caring. That is a bar this script doesn't clear.

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman, directed by Vincent Lancisi, presented through November 13 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $29-$73 at everymantheatre.org or 410.752.2208. Threatened sword violence.

Photo credit: Teresa Castracane Photography.