‘The Lion in Winter’ at Theatre Royal Haymarket

Sometimes I feel sorry for actors.  They work hard to gain a reputation for stylish performances, they rehearse and learn lines, find their marks, dress up and show up on time every day for the show, but then wake up and realise they are in the most dated, creaking play imaginable, in a huge theatre.  How hard they must be praying that their reputations will get the audience through the door, and how intently must they hope that the belief that the thing must get better in the second half will stop them all leaving at the interval.

At least that was what I spent my time thinking while I was wedged into my seat at the Theatre Royal Haymarket earlier this week.  Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley are both performers with great charm and charisma, and there was a spark of energy when they were sparring with each other, but it all felt rather wasted.

 They have a beautiful set in which to perform, high arches giving the feel of cathedral and echoing castle, made more comfortable with tapestry and curtains for the more intimate scenes.  But I have to admit I did spend one entire scene admiring the way the curves and fall of one drape had been lit a warm red, to accentuate a feeling of sumptuousness, and wishing I had the skill to draw something like it.

The tagline for ‘The Lion in Winter’ is something like ‘It’s Christmas, and a family is reuniting for the season’.  The shtick is that the family is the Plantagenets: Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine whom he has imprisoned for raising an army against him, and their three sons, Richard (the Lionheart), Geoffrey and John (Lackland; Magna Carta) who  are all vying to be the heir to the kingship.  So far so interesting.

The problem arise in the purposeful anachronisms inserted into the play, the knowing winks at the audience, the modern phraseology and idiom peppered through the script, the farcical hiding behind the arras.  It was all a bit lame.

Many members of the audience seemed to find some of it funny, but when I was amused by the gratuitous shoe-horning-in of a homosexual encounter between Richard and Philip of France, I found that my friend E and I were the only ones laughing, which made it even funnier, of course.

This play may have felt modern in the 1960s when it was first performed, but things have moved on since.  It may be interesting in the context of tracing the development of a strand of popular culture, as one of the first plays to attempt to mash historical drama with a contemporary idiom, but the things which have been done since are much cleverer and wittier, and this suffers as a consequence.

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