by James Goldman
Directed by Robert Moss
Starring Barbara Sims and Treat Williams 

Berkshire Theatre Group/Fitzpatrick Mainstage
until July 13

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman, is a tricked-up costume drama set during the reign of King Henry II of England.  The trick is that Goldman has, in effect, created a situation comedy of manners, very bad ones as it plays out.


Henry II confronts his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, about which of their three sons will inherit his throne. And the sons, not so unlike the daughters in “King Lear” – and there is no Cordelia among them – haggle over which of them will be the next monarch. They, and the unhappy mistress of the king and her brother, Philip, King of France, round out the list of characters.


Goldman writes without invoking the faux-Anglo diction that many period plays tend to adopt. Instead, all of the characters speak with witty, acerbic tongues and they handle the most extreme situations with phrases that Noel Coward would have envied. The effect is often amusing, but as the evening proceeds, the verbal dexterity wears away the reality that any of the characters may have had at the start. The play begins as an evening at the theatre where language is the centerpiece and ideas the heart. Unfortunately, at about the mid-way point, the extended use of epigrammatic banter entangles the ideas and the point of Goldman’s exploration is blunted.


Perhaps the epic story prompts the viewer to expect more substance than “The Lion in Winter” delivers. But perhaps it’s enough for the play to entertain lightly rather than to provoke deeply.  The audience certainly responded to the spiky exchanges and the power-playing machinations.


The production design (Brett J. Banakis) is among the most satisfying I’ve seen on the Fitzpatrick Mainstage, creating a world of other times and places. The unit set shifts locations without fuss and adds elements to distinguish these changes with style. The costumes, designed by David Murin, complement the strengths of the set, though in the night scenes, the women wear sheer clothing that wouldn’t have begun to make sense in stone castles, or any kind of dwelling, of the period.


Among the acting company, Treat Williams is a boisterous King Henry and a force that his sons cannot begin to diminish. He favours a booming delivery and softens the irony that Goldman has written into the role. Barbara Sims, as Eleanor (replacing Jayne Atkinson on the night that I attended), brings unusual elegance and charm to a role filled with vitriolic power and take-no-prisoners resolve. Her performance is warm, witty and the most carefully developed, but it does lack danger, and that throws off the balance with Williams.


As the sons, Aaron Costa Ganis (Richard), Karl Gregory (John) and Tommy Schrider (Geoffrey) work too hard to be convincing as any kind of threat. Ganis and Schrider, in particular, play men quite capable of forging political careers, but as preformed, they are putty in their father’s hands. Gregory, playing John, the most inept of the three, does his level best to breathe something of life into a role that, as written, is closer to the Three Stooges than to Shakespeare. Goldman, the playwright, appears to have wanted to cash in on all counts: melodrama, drawing-room comedy, historical investigation and knockabout family dysfunction.


“The Lion in Winter” has gained in popularity since its Broadway premiere in 1966, aided in large part by the film adaptation that starred Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. It’s a marvellous opportunity for two mature actors to take over the stage and show their stuff. And, apart from the several qualifications that I’ve observed, the play is a welcome reminder that language and ideas still have a place on the stage.


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