The Theatreguide.London Review
Haymarket Theatre Winter 2011-2012
'Middlebrow Drama' was a label invented, without rancour, for plays that offer the trappings of depth or importance while remaining wholly within the range of the legendary tired businessman. James Goldman's 1966 historical drama is an excellent example.
It combines an admittedly inaccurate history lesson with a lot of black humour and the slightest hints of psychology and character analysis. It is frequently very funny, until its single basic joke runs out of steam, and allows the fantasy that you now know what these historical figures might have been like, as long as you don't think too deeply about the anachronisms and characterising shortcuts the playwright takes.
And, not at all incidentally, it offers two barnstorming roles for charismatic and broad-playing actors.
Goldman's characters are Henry I of England-and-much-of-France, his estranged queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three sons, Richard (the Lionhearted), Geoffrey (the one no one remembers) and John (of the Magna Carta). Also in residence at what Goldman acknowledges is an anachronistic nineteenth-century-style family Christmas are Henry's current mistress and the visiting French king.
The central question is who will follow Henry to the throne. Eleanor favours Richard, Henry wants John, and as always (and this is one of the play's running jokes) nobody wants Geoffrey.
Goldman's device is to imagine the historical figures as an extremely dysfunctional twentieth-century family, the parents constantly bickering, the children resentful that mommy and daddy loved one of the others more (or never loved any of them at all), the boys cast into stereotypical family roles (Richard the bully, John the whining brat, etc.). It is several degrees better, but generically similar to imagining, say, the Borgias as the Simpsons.
The central premise and central joke of the play is that absolutely everyone lies to everyone else all the time, and everyone knows that everyone else is lying all the time. So a typical conversation goes like this: Character A says something reasonable, friendly and sincere. Character B pauses a beat and then says 'Very good. You almost had me. But of course what you're really trying to do is trick me into. . . .' And Character A laughs and says 'You caught me. Now let me try this one . . . .'
That's a very good gag the first half-dozen or so times Goldman uses it, but when it recurs in exactly the same form with metronome regularity, one exchange after another, it becomes less effective and even soporific.
Even the most tired among us get the point – everyone is trying to manipulate everyone else, either to come over to their side or betray the other side, and everyone is using exactly the same technique, over and over again.
The master players of the game are Henry and Eleanor, and even if the game itself gets boring, the opportunity is there for the actor and actress to chew up some scenery and share that enjoyment with us.
Robert Lindsay lets out all the stops as Henry – roaring, wheedling, crowing in momentary triumphs or thinking fast and bravely regrouping after momentary setbacks. Joanna Lumley is more laid-back as Eleanor, using all her comic talent to let the queen's barbs and zingers just float out there effortlessly.
It is not great acting in either case – the vehicle doesn't give them enough to work with for that – but it is very good acting of a purely technical sort, and a major pleasure of the evening is watching these two expert performers do what they can do so well, even if you sometimes suspect they're on automatic pilot.
Elsewhere, Trevor Nunn's direction too often has the feel of a second-string road company or provincial production, with broad surface playing substituting for real characterisations, the one exception being Sonya Cassidy, who does manage to suggest a real person inside the plot device that is Henry's mistress.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review
Return to Theatreguide.London home page.
Review - The Lion In Winter - Haymarket Theatre 2011