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.
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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.