Mining script

THE LION IN WINTER at the Everyman Theater

Even though he didn’t write it, I blame Robert Bolt for The Lion in Winter (currently on view at the Everyman Theatre). It was Bolt’s achievement in A man for all seasons (1960) to take a story that in its subject matter and plot might have been a Shakespearean history piece, and to give its characters recognizable modern psyches and speech patterns that did not seem overtly Shakespearean. There is no doubt that James Goldman drew on this example to try to take another slice of medieval British royal history and apply the same approach in Lion (1968). But Lion demonstrates that successful Bolt’s cascade requires more than modern characterizations and the absence of iambic pentameter. You need to know how to tell a story, and you need the language to be lyrical, even if it’s not verse.

The need for a story is the most acute problem. A few hours of characters munching on the scenery usually won’t accomplish much if the characters aren’t accomplishing anything. Now notice that I did say “usually”. An exception to this principle which I am sure was in Goldman’s mind when he wrote Lion was Edward Albee’s sensation in 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a few hours of characters chewing on the set and accomplishing nothing – except for devastating audiences everywhere. In Virginia Woolf, though, while the characters may have spun their wheels, the playwright accomplished a lot: the gradual exposure of the true depravity of the main four and the astonishing depth of their sense of acting. more about them at the end, and we’re horrified by what we learned. Goldman’s script is designed to tell us much but very little reliable about the inner nature of his characters, and to forbid them from developing in any meaningful way. Therefore, the result is not and cannot be devastating like Albee’s game was devastating.

The characters in Lion are all members of the English Royal House of Plantagenet and/or the French Royal House of Capet. The titular Lion is the English King Henry II (1133-1189) (Jefferson A. Russell), flanked by his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Deborah Hazlett), and three of their children: Richard (later Richard I) (Grant Emerson Harvey), John (later King John) (Ben Ribler) and Geoffrey (Zack Powell). Intermingled in this group are the French King Philip II (Ryan Dalusung) and Alais, Philip’s half-sister, Henry’s mistress and fiancée of the person with whom it is political to engage him at the moment (Hannah Kelly). The occasion is a Christmas holiday gathering of the Plantagenet clan – at Chinon, a castle where Henry imprisoned his wife after she teamed up with two of their sons to move him, but failed. (The rebellion was historical, though the Christmas gathering at the castle is a fictional device to get all the characters to the same place at the same time.) If family relationships exist, if not abound, among this group, so do personal and dynastic ambitions. . Apart from Alais, every guest on this particular evening has somewhere exercised the powers of head of state and/or aspires to become head of state. And they are all, Alais included (at least in the end), plotters and inveterate schemers. Their ambitions make each the natural adversary of all the others, but their family ties incline them or should incline them to act as parents or lovers. In other words, each is at the same time the friend, the lover or the relative of the other and the enemy of the other.

And it is this dynamic, the opposing forces of self-interest and natural affinity, that Goldman exploits so relentlessly that it frustrates the whole enterprise. The characters repeatedly profess their love for each other, or their attraction to each other, or their animosity towards each other – and then act in ways completely inconsistent with their feelings. declared. The fact (and this is historic) that Henry imprisons his wife after they were close enough to conceive several children together is emblematic of the tensions that Goldman is trying to play up. Their passion for each other, though tarnished by other relationships, persists – as do their dynastic struggles with each other, which led to Eleanor’s incarceration. But in each pair of characters, we continue to shuttle between attraction or loyalty on the one hand and combat on the other. After a short time there is no way of knowing what is supposedly real. And these aren’t garden-variety ambivalences; these are glaring contradictions, as a rule. There are no reliable affinities and few reliable hatreds. It’s not emotionally intelligible. We can come to understand the tortured marriage at the heart of Virginia Woolfbut nothing like it is possible with Henry and Eleanor’s marriage, or even the relationships of any other pair of characters in this play.

And so, in the end, we look back and find that not only has nothing improved, but also that nothing has actually happened. Swords are drawn, but no one is cut or dies. There is a lot of intrigue surrounding various monarchies and duchies, leading to several secret deals, but no one ends up enthroned or dethroned. There is talk of divorces and marriages, but no one’s marital status is changing or seems likely to soon. Collectively, this group of historical figures lived surprisingly turbulent lives before and after the action of this play – and in the play we see no events, just a return to stasis. And so we wonder as we go: what was the last two hours and more for? Why did we bother to make this trip? On the other hand, the Goldman model A man for all seasons chronicles a struggle between the dynastic ambitions of Henry VIII and the conscience of Thomas More in which the parties have increasingly escalated their adherence to their respective positions, and More loses his head at the end but wins the struggle indefinitely, a change in position about as substantial as a spectator could require. Here, no one stands for or adheres to anything, and the ending is literally a freeze frame in which Henry and Eleanor are frozen, signaling and perpetuating nothing but the paradox of their love/hate relationship. Which isn’t much.

I recognize that mine is a minority opinion; Lion ran for a respectable 92 performances on Broadway and was revived on Broadway in 1999, had numerous professional and amateur regional performances, and was made into a hit 1968 film that won three Academy Awards and was remade for television in 2003. But I just have to respectfully challenge. I hadn’t come across this show since I saw the movie when it came out (the script was also by Goldman), and as I was leaving Everyman on Friday night, I thought back to my thoughts as I walked out of the theater movie theater. I had felt the same sense of bewilderment. After two exhibitions more than half a century apart which produced the same result, I must therefore stick to my point of view.

None of this is Everyman’s fault, I might add. It is a handsome and well directed production, from the whole evoking the brickwork and interior framework of a 12th century chateau, with substantial features including a chandelier, fireplace, paintings and a four-poster bed (courtesy of Dan Conway and his team of carpenters), a choice of musical cues (medieval-sounding with a catchy beat), presumably selected by musical director Kathy Ruvuna, conducted by Vincent Lancisi, which makes all the bickering and kissing and make-up (but not really) believable Goldman assigned the cast. Much of the credit also goes to the cast, especially Russell and Hazlett (pictured above), for their courage to sound genuinely inauthentic over and over again in their respective relationships with wives, offspring, mistress and royalty French. The sheer diligence that this task would require was, I think, greatly admired by the public.

But in the end, it wasn’t enough. You not only have to have the talent to do the technical side of costume drama well, and have actors who can move convincingly, then (in this case) reverse gears convincingly, then reverse gears as many times as the script requires it. You also need a script that doesn’t force them to do it so often that it stops the audience from following and caring. It is a bar that this script does not clear.

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman, directed by Vincent Lancisi, running through November 13 at the Everyman Theater, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $29 to $73 at or 410.752.2208. Threat of sword violence.

Photo credit: Teresa Castracane Photography.