Front Row Center – December 2019

Front Row Center

By Michael Warren

Bare Stage
The Lion in Winter
by James Goldman
Directed by Rosann Balbontin

front row


This play is familiar to many who have seen the 1968 award-winning movie, starring Peter O’Toole as King Henry II of England and Katherine Hepburn as his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. Set during Christmas 1183 at Henry’s castle in Chinon, northern France, it is a sort of family reunion with their three sons Richard, Geoffrey and John. Also present is Alais, who was originally betrothed to Richard at age eight, but has since become Henry’s mistress. And, by the way, Henry has had Eleanor locked up for the past ten years, because she had been plotting to dethrone him. Not your average family Christmas!

It’s a challenge for director and cast to reveal the various themes of love and rivalries and betrayal. Each son wants to be named as Henry’s successor, while Eleanor wants to leverage her power base in Aquitaine to have Richard anointed as king. Initially I found the twelfth century politics strange in a modern language idiom, but once I got my bearings I really enjoyed the play. John Ward plays “Henry” with tremendous vigor, as befits a powerful monarch, while Rosanne Wilshere is wonderful as the feisty, scheming, sometimes malicious and highly intelligent “Eleanor.” The scenes between these two were the best part of the play.

The other four characters are pawns in the ongoing game between Henry and Eleanor. Johanna Labadie plays “Alais” with some skill as a sweet wife/mistress, who also has a mean streak – at the end of the play she asks Henry to imprison his three sons in the dungeon, and make her his queen. The three boys don’t like each other or their parents too much. Peter James is loud and aggressive as “Richard” who does eventually become King of England in 1189. Greg Custer plays “Geoffrey” as a quiet plotter behind the scenes, though his plots seem to fizzle out. And Andrew McFarlane is like the village idiot as the feckless and rather stupid “John” of future Magna Carta fame.

This was an entertaining interpretation of Goldman’s very well-written play. It was fun as well as being a history lesson. Congratulations to Rosann Balbontin and her cast for the pace and humor they brought to this evocation of human desire for power and at the same time love (or lack of it). Next up at Bare Stage is Paradise Lost at the end of December. Is this Milton, or something more recent? We will find out – they also serve who only stand and wait!

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