I knows my history I does. Dates anyway. Used to show off when at junior school, insufferable beast that I was. Henry II? Easy. 1154-1189. Sandwiched between King Stephen, whoever he was, and his sons Richard and John. Richard was the crusader, not half as nice as folks think he was, and devious John was famed for Runnymede and the Magna Carta. Rich period in history and the launch of the Plantagenet dynasty which lasted for at least 250 years. Given the squabbling family, father and mother and sons constantly at each other’s throats, it is a wonder they lasted more than five minutes. Put them on stage in some fictional gathering, here it is a Christmas get together, and the emotional and historical baggage hardly leaves you room to swing a cat.
The first thing that strikes you about Annalise Carter-Brown’s laudable production of The Lion in Winter is that it came in some classy packaging. Beautifully constructed with realistic stonework on a simple revolving set, and cloaked in atmospheric music and stunningly minimal lighting. This was a staging that constantly pleased the eye and pointed the action. If it did not totally please the ear, tone and delivery did not always match the presentational promise, you couldn’t fault the way these 12th century characters were dressed. Oh all right, the juvenile French king did look a bit like an overgrown chorister but that is nitpicking. All visuals generally combined to easily hold your interest in James Goldman’s dramatic slice of distilled Plantagenet history.
Trouble is there is a lot of that history by the time we get to 1183. Old Enery has been strutting his stuff for thirty years, and you need to lock into that complex baggage. We needed almost as much stamina as the actors, even those of us who snobbily swatted up in junior school. Best really to gloss over the enormous gaps in your knowledge and just enjoy a family at domestic war over who reigns when the old king has gone. And that small question had a multiplicity of solutions, amplified with touches of modernity and comic knowing. That was best illustrated by matriarch Eleanor of Aquitaine, a super Rona Cracknell, when sundry daggers were inconveniently drawn. It is 1183, she said, and we are barbarians. You couldn’t make it up, except of course, the playwright did. I liked such touches.
Other than the splendid Miss Cracknell, imposingly regal and ultra sharp, the actors who impressed most were Stephanie Overington’s crystal clear Alais and Anthony Bird’s petulant John. Miss Overington looked and sounded magnificent and Mr Bird engagingly invested the youngest spoilt son with a richness of variety and tone. Costume and hair, one flowing and the other full, added to the feeling that this young sprog should be given a good smacking and sent to bed. Alan Goss’s Henry, beautifully attired in simple rough clothes, brought admirable emotional depth to a man conscious of his turbulent past and uncertain future but needed greater vocal assurance to totally convince. The same was probably true of Joshua Thompson’s Geoffrey, but I liked him anyway. Especially his stillness. He had that air of menace and authority that pinpoints the marginalised. Nobody had a good word to say for him which is probably why, of the three remaining sons, history records he went off and died first. Probably a smart move, given the circumstances.
But all in all it was a pretty absorbing evening for anyone who likes their history. Okay some voices were a bit light in delivery for my tastes, I am an expert on how people spoke in 1183 he says, but all were sincere. They needed to be as narrative effortlessly eclipsed action in this family gathering. It generally worked because of Annalise Carter-Brown’s meticulous attention to her detailed presentation, served up with Alistair Brown and Jacob Shooter’s superb lighting and Graham Elliott’s evocative sounds. Alex Brewer (Richard) and Joe Hawkins (Philip of France) completed a cast always kept on song by Rep staging firmly out of the top drawer. Roy Hall