veteran playgoers have a short list of plays of which they
can't get enough. For me, another chance to see James
Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" on stage is as satisfying as
the 500th run through "Casablanca" is for the film buff.
At first glance "The Lion in Winter" seems like an unlikely
candidate. The subject is certainly obscure enough.
Who could possibly care what might have gone on between Henry
II of England, his wife and four sons, his mistress and a
royal house guest on Christmas Eve and Day 1183? If the
audience at Sunday's matinee is any indication, most of us
don't even know which of England's Henrys this is.
For the record, this Henry is the husband of Eleanor of
Aquitaine and the father of John (the king of Magna Carta
fame) and Richard I (the lion-hearted crusader and king). For
historical context, think back to the period just before Robin
Hood. Now 50, Henry wants an orderly succession that
will keep his empire intact. Hampering his dream are
three ambitious sons of varying ability and minimal loyalty
and a rebellious queen he has to imprison for his own
But, as the production that opened Friday at the Theatre
Factory in Trafford proved, it's not necessary to know any of
that for this story of Henry Plantagenet and his family to
reach across eight centuries and touch us. Hidden inside
the secret drawer of this 2 1/2 hour puzzle box of plots,
schemes and swiftly shifting alliances is the familiar
domestic question of who loves whom best.
Director Bill Mott and his design team wisely concentrate
attention on the literate text and able cast. Colorful,
complex characters come to life against a spare black set of
arches, steps and levels.
Howard Elson's Henry may hold the empire but it's Mary
Rawson's Eleanor who drives this drama. He needs to
control the future. But for her the battle is as
important as the outcome. "i care because you care so
much," she tells Henry.
Elson shows Henry to best advantage in quiet moments of
affection or deliberation. Rawson makes Eleanor
alternately vulnerable, strong, pitiable and admirable and
very, very funny. The performance sharpens
whenever she's on stage. Vaughn A. Challingsworth is
delightfully sulky and whiny as the gloating, self-centered
but dim-witted and adolescent John.
David Chase is a dynamic and likable Richard. Jay
Smith's Geoffrey changes sides effortlessly and without
remorse. Meaghan McKenna's Alais is a fragile and
occasionally assertive pawn, and Aaron Macerelli weighs in as
France's young King Philip.
"You know, I hope we never die," says Henry at play's end.
"I hope so, too," answers Eleanor. They won't as long as
performers such as these keep bringing them back to life.