Post Punk Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II
At this time of year, theatres and cinemas are filled with sentimental fare celebrating Christian values of redemption, generosity and family values. For people who come from fractured families, it is often a time of depression and angst, as individuals who don’t see their families feel lonely and isolated and those who do, often feel worse.
Such is the Plantagent family, the ruling family of the Angevin empire ( that is to say present day Great Britain and most of Western France) at Christmas 1183. The Lion in Winter, produced by 12/48 projects, at Ballard Underground, might perhaps be therapeutic for individuals from fractured families because it provides a rather comic touch to sibling & parental rivalry with witty dialogue and very high stakes.
Written by James Goldman, an American, The Lion in Winter, was first performed on Broadway in 1966 and made into a movie with Peter O’Toole as King Henry II of England and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, his estranged Queen.
Even by the rather less than “Leave it to Beaver” standards of the day, the Plantagenets were an excessively loathsome family. For the festivities, that is to say, the human chess game, the following are gathered:
I. Henry II, who inadvertently had his former pal Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Beckett, the “turbulent priest” killed by some of his knights,
II. Henry and Eleanor’s three adult sons: Richard, (who contrary to his macho looks and legend was gay) who should be the heir to everything because the eldest son young Henry has recently died. Next in line is John, otherwise known as King John, a scheming wimp much like Black Adder, and then Geoffry, the youngest and smartest, who later became Duke of Brittany through his marriage to Constance the heiress.
III. Alais, a princess of France, who has been officially betrothed to Richard for years and years, but is in fact Henry’s mistress.
IV. Phillip II King of France, Alais’s brother, (also gay) puts in an appearance.
V. Eleanor of Aquitaine perhaps the most beautiful, literate, powerful and controversial woman of the middle ages:
Due to the death of her brother, Eleanor had inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine, in Southwest France, as a child, became Queen Consort of France as a teen-ager, obtained a phony annulment from the King of France, and promptly married 17 year old Henry II, a man 11 years her junior.
The play opens 10 years after “the Great Revolt” in which Eleanor had sided with her son against her husband, resulting in her incarceration in castles in England, when the King and his court were located in France. Henry has allowed her to visit the family for the holidays. Intrigue, bickering and some incredibly witty dialogue ensue.
The main conflict of the play revolves around who will take over when Henry dies as he is getting on in years. In those days, it was not automatic that the eldest son would inherit everything. The big question is: Should Richard, Eleanor’s favorite, be given the whole empire? Or should John, Henry’s favorite. Or should it be broken up? Should one son get Brittany, one son get England, and one son get the rest of the French possessions. Should Richard finally marry Alais or give back her dowry? Should Henry imprison his sons for the rest of his life, divorce Eleanor and try to have more sons?
Although the description sounds much like Henry Kissenger meets Metternich, in fact it is hilarious with extremely witty dialogue as the characters verbally spar with each other, as they plot, form alliances, express affection and then betray each other. In short they are all enmeshed in something very complicated and decidedly unhealthy.
Director Gary Zinter , chose an excellent concept to express the gritty unpleasantness of this family. The music was post-punk rock, with costuming was that was a creative combination of S & M, punk, contemporary Goth and a few medieval touches. It worked much better than the traditional pretty medieval costumes would have.
Although, I can’t say, I would ever listen to the music in any other circumstance , the sound design by Zinter and Rodney Shrader was right on the money to support the play’s theme. Hannah Schnabel’s costumes were spot on, complete with simple details, which made the characters easily distinguishable from each other, gave immediate clues to their characters and helped the audience follow the plot.
For example, Schnabel designed the costumes of Alais, a princess of France, and her brother Phillip, the King of France, with prominent Fleur-de-Lys-the symbol of the French monarchy. Since the history of the period is not known to everybody and the exposition is very verbal, it was an excellent choice.
The highly effective set by Gerard Menendez, was simple, medieval looking and had all the doorways necessary for spies to hide in while overhearing conversations.
In general, it was an extremely good cast. Most impressive was Lyam White as Henry II, who handled the witty dialogue with ironic humor and vocal agility. Monica Wulzen as Alais, princess of France was also outstanding. Although the exposition was very verbal, the two of them made it zing with scintillating wit! As a younger evolving version of another Eleanor, Ms. Wulzen, had an intensity on stage which was admirable, you could see her calculated mind ticking over as she observes every conversation. The audience is not surprised when she finally takes her destiny into her own hands and forces Henry to make a decision about her fate.
Unfortunately Christine White, Eleanor, seemed to be having a bad night with severe vocal problems. As a result, she could not really deliver the humor, sarcasm or wit inherent in her lines, instead she relied on aggression and some shouting instead.
Among the sons, Jeffry Willey as Geoffry stood out as the much overlooked youngest son, who had a quiet yet effective manner and delivered his lines with precision and power. Zach Simonson, though too old for the part, put in a solid performance as the obnoxious cowardly John. Dylan Smith was perfect, as a gay man trapped in a macho body. Ahren Buhrman as Phillip of France was excellent as a scheming Frenchman and seemed to fit the Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the overly-civilized Frenchman to a T.
The one real flaw was that the script is a little too long for the material. There is not much plot, just exquisite dialogue worthy of Noel Coward. However, the director added creative touches which lifted this production above the material, the cast delivered a first rate performance and it is a welcome respite from all the Christmas sentimentality.
The Lion in Winter. 14-48 A Partner Project of 14-48 Projects. Ballard Underground. 2220 NW Market St. Ballard, Seattle. 98107 Dec. 11-19. Tickets: www.the1448project.org/lioninwinter