Review: The Lion In Winter

By John Nathan, November 17, 2011
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Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1

Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay: embracing comedy

Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay: embracing comedy

With two of this country's favourite funny actors in the role of Henry II and his estranged wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, director Trevor Nunn has decided that James Goldman's 1966 play is much more a comedy than it is a melodrama.

The year is 1183 and, as he does every Christmas, King Henry, played by Robert Lindsay, releases from prison his troublesome French Queen, a witty Joanna Lumley, so that mum, dad, and the kids (the murderous Richard, the scheming Geoffrey and the petulant John) can all enjoy yuletide together. And, as with many a family Christmas, tensions rise to the point where hostilities break out.

The festering row here is that each son wants to be king. It is a prize that, in the space of a couple of days, is promised to John, almost claimed by Richard, and very nearly grasped by Geoffrey.

Everyone is plotting, conspiring and scheming. Even Eleanor has a plan to get one over on her estranged husband by promoting Richard to the crown over Henry's favourite, John. Yet the point is that this family is in essence very much like most others, and what counts is that Henry and Eleanor are two middle-aged parents whose grown-up children have each, in their way, turned out to be rather disappointing - all three are unworthy heirs to the throne.

You cannot help wondering if Britain's current Queen and her husband have had very similar conversations about their own three princes.

In the roles of the parents, the solid if uninspired Lindsay leans a tad too heavily on the kind of comedy shtick honed in TV sitcom. But Lumley is terrific - a much more interesting combination of hurt pride and involuntary love for the man who conquered both her army and her heart. Theirs is the kind of marital trap that brings to mind works by Strindberg and Albee, but only in the sense that their plays were far more devastating on the subject than Goldman's.

Perhaps this is why Nunn went for high comedy instead of high drama. The tone works best when the modern idioms in the script clash head-on with medieval conventions. When Prince John cries, "he's got a knife", as Richard murderously advances on him, Lumley's world-weary Eleanor says: "Of course, he's got a knife. We've all got a knife." Think of Blackadder.

But you cannot help feeling that, while revealing all this comic potential, Nunn has served up a family drama that has no sense of history.

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    Last updated: 11:23am, November 17 2011