One of the iffy things a play can do is try too hard. That is precisely what James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter (1966) does. Dialogue should be witty; so every line is, or tries to be, an epigram. Character is meant to change, develop; so every few minutes, the characters flip-flop or go off at right angles. As for the plot, it is ingenious and complex, what with the complicated politics of medieval England and France. We get the continuous machinations of England’s Henry II; his queen and adversary, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and their three sons: Richard Lionheart, Geoffrey, and John, each of whom covets the crown. Also of young Philip of France, who aims to recover as much as possible of the French territories now under English rule. So much history and geography is tossed about that your head feels it is swimming the English Channel in both directions at once.
On the other hand, many of the lines really are funny, or at least clever; the audience is not patronized; and the actors are given plenty of chances to strut their stuff. Goldman claimed that though the words were all his, historical facts were faithfully observed. Well, yes and no. If Henry kept Eleanor captive in a castle for years, the play observes this; but the playwright is also forced to keep things interesting, to make the pair improbably still in love with each other. The French princess Alais and Henry are lovers, yet every ten minutes she is to marry one or another of his sons. And she and Eleanor are bursting with unlikely love-hate for each other.
Pinpoint casting would help greatly, but we don’t quite get it. Laurence Fishburne’s Henry is good enough to make us forget that the king was white, good enough to erase memories of Peter O’Toole in the movie version but not good enough to efface Robert Preston in the play’s premiere. (Could anyone?) Stockard Channing is sassily sparkly as Eleanor, but I recall Rosemary Harris’s achieving as much with greater ease. The others are problematic. As Geoffrey, the dullest son, Neal Huff is at least competent; but Keith Nobbs’s John, meant to be obnoxious, succeeds too well. As Philip, Roger Howarth overplays the character’s sexual ambiguity. Chuma Hunter-Gault’s Richard may indeed be lionhearted but is mouse-mannered and flabby-voiced. As Alais, Emily Bergl seems less Henry II’s paramour than Carrie 2’s heroine, her current onscreen role.
Michael Mayer’s direction can go from poor (A View From the Bridge, The Triumph of Love) to fine (Side Man; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown); here it falls somewhere midway. Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Michael Krass’s costumes attain their customary heights; David Gallo, hitherto known for his comic, contemporary sets, here dazzles equally with serious, historical ones. Both the majestic columns and the convex, metal-link inner curtain work wonders.
But Goldman cannot avoid occasional vulgarity, as in the ludicrously facile “Of course he has a knife, we all have a knife – it’s 1183 and we are all barbarians”; or such jokes as “They threw the baby out and kept the afterbirth,” which must have been hoary even in 1183.