The Lion in Winter

One initially assumed, when faced with the prospect of this old chestnut as its Christmas show, that the Theater Royal Haymarket had its tongue in cheek.

King Henry II - Robert Lindsay
Queen Eleanor - Joanna Lumley
Prince Richard - Tom Bateman
Prince Geoffrey - James Norton
Prince John - Joseph Drake
King Philip of France - Rory Fleck-Byrne
Princess Alais - Sonya Cassidy

One initially assumed, when faced with the prospect of this old chestnut as its Christmas show, that the Theater Royal Haymarket had its tongue in cheek. The central roles in this creaky costume drama are so linked to Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn that staging it now virtually compels newcomers to contest their legacy via vigorous chewing of scenery, and the casting of “Absolutely Fabulous” legend Joanna Lumley in the distaff role heightened expectations of knowing archness. But, as Trevor Nunn’s production makes its stately pace across Stephen Brimson Lewis’ lovingly realistic set, the realization dawns: This may not be a joke. And thus a camp classic is born.

The daft conceit of James Goldman’s play can be summed up as “At Home with the Plantagenets,” or perhaps “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with jousting poles. The year is 1183. Robert Lindsay (“Me and My Girl,” “Wimbledon”) and Lumley play the aging Henry II of England and his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he’s locked in a tower for the past decade while he canoodles with his son’s lovely fiancee, Alais (Sonya Cassidy). It being Christmas Eve (cue seasonal relevance), Eleanor is allowed home to the family castle, along with her three sons, each of whom is a contender for succession. Inviting Alais’ brother, the young King of France (Rory Fleck-Byrne) is, of course, hardly pure hospitality: He is a key player in Henry’s initial plan to keep his kingdom intact.

Popular on Variety

The play’s gag (also evident in the film) is that the political context is archaic and the stakes almost inconceivably high, but the characters squabble and exchange one-liners as if they’re in a drawing-room comedy. Initially, this provides considerable entertainment, because the leads tear into their roles with obvious zeal, and many of the lines are funny because they’re excessive, anachronistic or both. Would Eleanor of Aquitaine really have intoned, in recalling her erotically charged first meeting with Henry, that “we shattered the Commandments on the spot”? One tends to doubt it, but as delivered with white-hot conviction by Lumley, the line brings the house down.

Maintaining this tone, however, requires a challenging combination of aplomb and ironic distance, which Lindsay nails throughout. He both embodies and comments on the role of the ever-potent, ever-lustful Henry, in his David Cassidy mullet and ludicrously dashing leather boots and woolen cowl. Lumley, however, founders when facing the hairpin shifts from joy to despair that her character is so often called on to navigate. What has been delightfully knowing increasingly turns bathetic. The younger performers play their characters as the stereotypes they are (Joseph Drake’s John is a hunched sniveler, James Norton’s Geoffrey a cold-hearted schemer, and so on), but never play at the level of commitment plus comment that Lindsay pulls off so well.

Despite its promising opening, then, the evening ends up bogging down. Part of the problem is the length of the text: There are so many twists, shifts of loyalty, plots and counterplots that investment in the situation simply erodes. But a further problem is Nunn’s po-faced production; the zestful, winking quality of some of the performances is increasingly undercut by reverential staging and monotonous pacing.

Incongruities thus mount as the night goes on, but this hodgepodge quality lends the production a certain inscrutable camp appeal. Production values are impressively high, from Brimson Lewis’ marvelous castle-interior setting, which is efficiently transformed into different locations by the flying in of latticework walls and luxurious draperies, to Peter Mumford’s varied, angular lighting. We are encouraged to believe there were Christmas trees trimmed and wrapped packages exchanged in 12th-century medieval France. For a fleeting moment, the play turns queer, as Richard the Lionheart (Tom Bateman) and King Philip reveal their blistering secret affair and retire to the four-poster. In the end, it’s hard to discern what the Haymarket and Nunn were thinking by putting this on, but this very oddness gives the production a strong word-of-mouth potential.

The Lion in Winter

Production: Credits: A Theater Royal Haymarket presentation of a play in two acts by James Goldman. Directed by Trevor Nunn.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Paul Groothius; video, Ian William Galloway; production manager, Patrick Moloney. Opened, reviewed Nov. 15, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: King Henry II - Robert Lindsay
Queen Eleanor - Joanna Lumley
Prince Richard - Tom Bateman
Prince Geoffrey - James Norton
Prince John - Joseph Drake
King Philip of France - Rory Fleck-Byrne
Princess Alais - Sonya Cassidy

More Legit

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

  • Bess Wohl

    Listen: The Impossible Plays of Bess Wohl

    The playwright Bess Wohl is always chasing a wild idea — and she’s found that rather than scaring away her collaborators, it just makes them more eager. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I started my career thinking, oh, I’ll just write a play that’s really easy to do,” Wohl said on the latest episode [...]

  • Roundabout Theatre Company: Three New Plays

    Roundabout Theatre's Off-Broadway Season Adds Three Shows From Female Playwrights

    Roundabout Theatre Company, led by artistic director and CEO Todd Haimes, announced Tuesday that three female-written plays will be added to the 2020-2021 Off-Broadway season. Sanaz Toossi’s “English” will make its world premiere in fall of 2020, while Lindsey Ferrentino’s “The Year to Come” and Anna Ziegler’s “The Wanderers” will make their New York debuts [...]

  • Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant,

    Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant, Dies at 73

    Gregg Smith, a dancer, casting director and assistant choreographer who had a long association with director Kenny Ortega, has died. He was 73. Smith died on Jan. 1. The industry veteran worked as a performer in the national touring company of the musical “Hair” and in a Los Angeles production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content