Eleanor of Aquitaine was the only woman in history to be both Queen of France and Queen of England. How's that for "bigger than life"? And she is only one of the bigger-than-life protagonists in James Goldman's 1966 drama, The Lion in Winter, which was recently on the boards at the Slidell Little Theatre. Other celebrity characters in the play are Richard the Lionhearted and his knavish brother John, who was the very same King John that Robin Hood so despised. And let us not forget King Henry II of England, himself. After all, he is the aging lion of the title. Other guests at the little family colloquy, which is the play's setting, include a third Plantagenet brother named Geoffrey and King Philip of France. Not to mention, Alais, Philip's half sister, who was the potential bride of Richard and of John and, not to mention, the current mistress of their father King Henry.
This bigger-than-life quality of the dramatis personae is one of the reasons why The Lion in Winter is both attractive to community theaters and, also, hard to pull off.
There's a good reason why a popular TV series about the chicanery of wealth and power was given the name Dynasty. The Lion in Winter is about a dynasty in the days when there really was such a thing -- the days when, in fact, the winner wore a crown. I would like to lay out the premise of the play for you, but it's difficult because the very nature of the premise has to do with the insubstantiality of the real. For no sooner is one course of action proposed by one of the characters then his interlocutor dismantles the supposed reality that the course of action rested on. Next, the interlocutor introduces a new supposed reality and a new proposed course of action based upon it. This interminable move/counter-move fills the viewer with delight or ennui, depending on his appetite for conspiracy. I imagine Kennedy assassination buffs would find the play irresistible.
Basically, The Lion in Winter transports us to the castle of Chinon, France, where we meet King Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom Henry has held imprisoned for the past 10 years in one of his out-of-the-way chateaux. Henry, it seems, would like to pass his crown on to his son John, the aforementioned cringing, ineffectual nincompoop. Eleanor would rather to see her ferocious favorite, Richard, on the throne.
"I love, and I hate," wrote the ancient Roman poet Catullus of his coy mistress. Catullus' paradox pretty much defines Henry and Eleanor's connubial disaster. In fact, the whole family of Royals falls in the same category of ambivalence. The Lion in Winter traces the mating dance of a den of aristocratic scorpions. But these two-legged scorpions menace one another with plots and counter-plots, rather than poisonous stingers. Their one abiding pleasure is making a good move on the chessboard of politics, or acknowledging the good move of an adversary. Where do their real human feelings lie hidden? Have they, in fact, anything even remotely resembling such feelings? Well, we suspect they do, but they are masters of disguise. And just when they seem to have been touched, they move with that much more speed and coldness to transform vulnerability into yet another strategic advantage.
At Slidell Little Theatre, director Julie Wood assembled a talented cast and put them through their paces at a comfortable rhythm. Robert Jahncke as Henry and Janet Talley as Eleanor were the main contenders in this battle of scorpions. They were a well-matched pair and conveyed the embers of a once-consuming passion. Devils in love, you might say -- a duo that's not all that easily distinguished from devils in hate. Gary Mendoza was the fierce, decisive Richard and Kevin McCormak was the resentful, conniving Geoffrey. John, curiously, was played by Leona Luebbe. This actress did a valiant job as the varlet brother, but I was a bit bewildered by the cross-gender casting. It's hard enough to nail down a believable world in this medieval rogue's gallery, without adding supererogatory confusions. Elizabeth Page as Alais and Bryan Reilly as Philip ably filled out the cast. I don't know if ambivalence is catching, but -- after several hours in the company of these ambivalent bickering nobles -- I found myself ambivalent about the play itself. It's a clever, intense, cynical look at power and those who wield it. And yet, it ultimately doesn't quite convince -- not me, anyway. However, this clever, intense and cynical production certainly convinced the audience in Slidell the day I was there. In fact, almost every scene received an ovation. The ambivalence clearly stopped with me.