Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.
Review: `The Lion in Winter’
The Roundabout Theater Company has found a genuine
lioness for the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the first Broadway
revival of James Goldman’s "The Lion in Winter." Whatever
the longstanding pros and cons are regarding this 1965 comedy-drama
about the feuding Plantagenets and Capets, circa 1183, Stockard Channing
is the one to make the stage quiver and quake, as the wife of Henry
II. Amidst a torrent of semi-historical, semi-hysterical ranting and
threatening, Channing lays siege to the royal household, and shows
There is much to entertain us in this raucous play in which the imprisoned
Queen, who has led a series of rebellions against the King, arrives
for the Christmas season and brings along her savage wit and lusty
unrepentant heart. To experience the sheer force that Channing puts
behind Eleanor’s "mommy dearest" front, as well as behind
her inescapable despair is quite thrilling and a needed boost for
this otherwise disappointing staging.
For those who are familiar with Katherine Hepburn’s performance in
the great(er) film version (Peter O’Toole was Henry) or who remember
the role’s originator on Broadway, Rosemary Harris (opposite Robert
Preston as Henry), Channing may not appear to plumb the depths of
the character with the same versatility or variety. But there is no
denying that Channing effectively scorches the surface of Eleanor
with the clawing vengeance of a lioness scorned.
Goldman’s glittering witty prose, a genial mix of the high-minded
and the low-brow, and to my mind not well enough regarded by many
critics, does a great job of propelling the story from one explosive
climax to another. Henry’s three sons connive and deceive one another
in a constant barrage of almost literal backbiting. This all happens
under the watchful eye of the ever-resourceful Eleanor, who proves
without losing much time that she can connive and deceive them all
in her quest to keep Henry in tow.
Not easily out-foxed or out-witted, Henry flaunts his power and his
young French mistress Alais around the court only to learn from Phillip
King of France, that he must relinquish her in marriage to Richard,
his eldest son, fulfilling an old treaty requirement between the nations.
The play is a whirlwind of vicious verbal assaults that at times becomes
a little too relentless to be believed. That it remains somewhat of
a miracle of heightened reality is thanks to Goldman’s never less
than amusingly trenchant text.
There is also a pomposity and pretentiousness to the proceedings that
tends to make you think you are watching a dramatization of events
with some historical relevance and importance instead of a contemporary
look at human follies and universal flaws in a remote and distant
setting. It is just this arrogance and pith with a sprinkle of old-fashioned
salacious humor that can make "Lion" such good theater, if
not good history.
The fine actor Laurence Fishburne (he won the Tony for "Two Trains
Running") is Henry. But one only wishes that the bravura demands
of the role appeared to suit him as easily as does the fit of the
royal robes. Despite his commanding presence and resonating voice,
Fishburne is no match in tone or temperament for Stockard. Fishburne’s
performance is not to be entirely dismissed, however, as he shows
us a conflicted man capable of many loves, changing his bedside manner
as often as he switches favors from one son to another.
Watching Fishburne dash from passionate caresses with
the youthfully seductive Alais (a nice but unexceptional turn by Emily
Bergyl) into the loving clutches and fangs of Eleanor is not short
of being fun. Even with shortcomings, Fishburne makes for a decidedly
robust survivor in this house of royal intrigues, as he at no time
loses sight of the intrinsic sense of humor in his character that
keeps the king sane as well as sharp, even in his darkest moments.
Channing’s wry asides are as menacing as her maneuvers around the
feeble and trembling walls of insecurity that are slowly crumbling
around her three sons John (Keith Nobbs), the youngest, scruffiest,
and most immature; Geoffrey (Neal Huff), the most resentful because
he is ignored middle son; and the ever angry Richard Lionheart (Chuma
Hunter-Gault), whose exposed homosexual affair with King Phillip of
France merely adds only one more cause for alarm along with all the
other 812 traumas that happen with lightning frequency during the
event-filled two hours and ten minutes. Considering the astonishingly
wretched acting by the three actors who play these sons, honors go
to Roger Howarth’s mercenary Phillip who had no trouble entrapping
and devouring his prey with glowering affection.
Burdened with such ineffective supporting players, director Michael
Mayer had his work cut out for him keeping the audience in a constant
state of hypertension, a necessity in this play. Undoubtedly Mayer
realizes that the play at its heart is less than meets the ear, so
he keeps the action swirling and the quips coming as fast and as furious
as possible. Michael Krass’ authentic-looking, 12th-century costumes
are admirable, but never flattering to anybody. David Gallo’s castle
interiors are a circling maze of majestic moody chambers. HH
— Simon Saltzman
at 45 Street, 212-719-1300. $60. Through May 23.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.