“We are the origins of war,” Eleanor of Aquitane purrs at her adult children as she layers herself in golden jewelry halfway through The Lion in Winter, currently onstage at Everyman Theatre in a production directed by Vincent M. Lancisi. It’s a play both timeless and timely, furiously funny and sublimely staged.
That The Lion in Winter is a purely fictitious event with imagined dialogue about historical figures is well-established, but it remains a truthful, transhistorical study about power, desire, ambition, and corruption. In many ways, it is one of the handful of English history plays written during the modern era that feels thoroughly Shakespearean — Beckett, King Charles III, and Wolf Hall are among the best — capturing great historical figures at their pettiest moments as they wage civil and foreign wars, break with ancient rites and religions, and cheat, lie, and steal their way into the annals of history. It doesn’t really matter what’s accurate and what’s not; it’s a soap opera with crowns and daggers.
Depicting Christmas 1183 in a drafty French castle festooned with holly, Dan Conway’s set design — wooden buttresses, fleur-de-lis window grates, imposing wooden chandelier, and Bayeux Tapestry wall design — brings us back to the past, as do the velvet costume designs by David Burdick. The medieval setting of the play — written by the American playwright James Goldman in vernacular, witty, and accessible prose, and first performed on Broadway in 1966 — belies its contemporary feel and dialogue. (And it’s no surprise that the play is so adaptable for modern settings: in the last several years, we’ve seen The Lion in Winter reimagined as a hip-hop drama for FOX’s Empire about the sparring Lyon family, and in HBO’s Succession we hate-watch the powerful Roy family as they fight over money and power.)
The premise is a variation of King Lear (as the characters remark upon themselves): the older King Henry II is in decline with three sons all vying for the throne. The eldest, Richard Lionheart — his mother’s favorite — is a ruthless military leader who has destroyed entire towns just because they were there. As played by Grant Emerson Harvey, Richard is all suppressed rage and desires always near the boiling point but never fully spilling over. Geoffrey — played with sleazy charm by Zack Powell — is a Machiavel, constantly changing allegiances and thinking three steps ahead of his less shrewd brothers. He is a consummate and conniving statesman; there are daggers in his smiles. He is also completely ignored in typical middle-child fashion by his parents, the only people who seem to understand exactly how deceitful he is. The King has a soft spot for his youngest son, John, a simpering fool with more pimples than brains. He is the very embodiment of white male mediocrity failing upward. Ben Ribler convincingly creates a character so charmless that it’s bewildering how he is his father’s favorite (beyond Henry’s contrarian nature). This is not Lear’s choice between loving Cordelia and her cruel sisters; all three sons are remarkably unfit in different ways as their parents know.
There are further complications. The young king of France Philip (Ryan Dalusang) wants to prove that he is tougher than his father — who was also Eleanor’s ex-husband and frenemy of Henry. His sister Alais (the beguiling Hannah Kelly) is a political pawn, the young lover of the aging Henry, who wishes to marry her off to one of his sons. But brought up in Eleanor’s court, she is just as duplicitous and ambitious as her maternal proxy. What a delight it is to watch Kelly evolve into an Eleanor-esque queen on the chessboard.
And then we have the two warring monarchs: Henry and Eleanor, the poisonous Martha and George of 12th-century Europe, bursting and spitting with envy, infidelity, cruelty, and visceral hatred for each other.
Jefferson A. Russell as Henry has the bearing of a king, the booming roar of a lion, but all the insecurities of what is merely a mortal under his royal guise. He is afraid of death, of aging, of being alone, and of failing his country. His shoulders slump under the weight of it all. And worst of all, he is no match for his estranged, imprisoned (for treason), and jealous wife.
Deborah Hazlett is deliciously wicked as Eleanor. When Richard pulls a dagger on John, her Eleanor drily notes, “We all have knives,” but only Eleanor has a tongue so sharp and so cutting. Even locked in a tower, she remains the most powerful player at court (and arguably, across Europe), the most cunning of them all.
It’s no surprise that despite decades of infidelity, attempted coups, and pitting their children against each other, the air practically crackles with energy when these two monsters trade barbs and occasional longing glances at each other.
The fantasies of power and historical personages transcend time or space, but this work about a family squabbling for power may seem even more resonant onstage just one month after the funeral of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch — and until now, the only monarch during the play’s history.
After Queen Elizabeth II’s death in September, there were centuries of rituals to be upheld over the ten days of public mourning, personal sentiments and familial traditions to be shared, and mourners queued
for miles to pay their last respects. There were those who reflected on the diminished or useless role of the monarchy in today’s politics, and pointed toward the hurtful legacies of colonization, imperialism, and racism. And many looked for expressions of intimacy or animosity between brothers Prince William and Prince Harry and their spouses. We still want to watch a good old-fashioned family feud, especially if the players are richer and prettier than us.
That is why this play remains so powerful. And as long as we have the theatrics of the monarchy (as well as shows such as The Crown), the historical and the present, the political and the personal, the actual and fantastical will continue to blur together.
Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
The Lion in Winter plays through November 13, 2022, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets ($29–$69), call the box office at (410) 752.2208 or purchase them online. Box office hours are Monday to Friday from 10 am until 4 pm, and Saturdays from 12 am until 4 pm.
The program for The Lion in Winter is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required for attendance. Everyman’s Guide to Patron Health and Safety is here.