The Lion in Winter is an age-old story of family unrest and incivility set in the year 1183 when King Henry sat on the throne of England and half of France. His relationship with his wife, Eleanor, is more destructive than most marriages even nowadays can claim to be and their relationships with their three sons each vying for the throne can’t be said to be much better. Set at Christmas it brings out of the dynamic familiar to all of us a farcically extreme situation and sequence of hilarious events.
To start at the beginning I would like to give a special mention to the opening of the show. Much like the openings to the various Star Wars films we see a few paragraphs materialise on the screen in front of the stage that set the scene brilliantly. It’s worth pointing out when such gimmicks work well, especially with Nunn’s recent infatuation with such things, and this is a good example. It did its job wonderfully and engaged the audience in the context it was providing.
The performance given by Robert Lindsay was remarkable. Following on from his captivating performance in Onassis last year he created a strong character that was compelling at every turn. When he was raging and angry you believed his ire and when he sat back and schemed you were almost more scared for what would follow. Above all, however, he was incredibly funny. Although Lumley had, arguably, the pick of the lines he had the character that sat in the middle of the maelstrom, struggling to create order. At times he was side-splittingly funny and at others stunningly powerful: another majestic performance.
Joanna Lumley is a brilliant pairing for Lindsay and their chemistry is evident throughout. The pair are matched in strength and poise, humour and vigour bashing together at every turn like the world around them is caught between a rock and a hard place. She gave an assured and calm performance, sure of herself and her character, which was a very good thing indeed. If she wasn’t so confident there would not have been such a high degree of believability about her.
The supporting cast were all on good form as well. Jospeh Drake, most successfully from Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, captured the childish and needy Prince John perfectly, giving us what we needed to see him in the same light as the other characters on stage. Among those was Tom Bateman’s Prince Richard (later Richard the Lionheart) who was portrayed very much as a lion marching angrily round the stage and had the power to make it work. Quietly in the background was James Norton as the forgotten son Geoffrey, trying his best to scheme and manipulate events to turn in his favour much like his parents had. His perpetual frustration at being brazenly neglected is another brilliant dynamic and the relationships between the brothers are priceless.
Among the chaos sits the quiet and confident King of France, played by Rory Fleck-Byrne. His most enjoyable scene is the scene in his room where each of the princes come and visit him, each hiding in the room as the other arrives before King Henry eventually makes his appearance. What happens next is the coming to a head of the myriad machinations in a mad melee of physical comedy, verbal witticism, bawdy revelation and unadulterated hilarity. Throughout it all, Fleck-Byrne is composed and handles the script in a very mature and professional way, sitting back and allowing the lines to do their work, crafting the magic of the Christmas story effortlessly.
Sonya Cassidy is more than a match for the strong men she is surrounded by, despite the perhaps weaker nature of her character. Her beauty and her naivety are as compelling as her fear and her strength, making her a wonderful antipathy to the machinations of the people around her. She is a flower caught in a field of aggressive weeds. Her relationship with Lindsay becomes powerfully romantic despite his character and she is very easy to watch.
The set is slick and effective, using two rotating circles of stage to easily change sets between scenes and curtains for room divides and partitions. It all worked very well apart from the one piece of holly that wouldn’t stay out around a candle that saw Lumley break from character in frustration. An early glitch in the run that I’m sure will be ironed out by the time any of you read this review.
Despite all of the above, however, the standout brilliance of the show is the script. The fact that it has found its way into such capable hands no doubt serves it very well and it thrives under their enjoyment of what is undeniably funny. Despite the somewhat distant time period and unusual setting of the play, it is essentially a comedy about a destructive family trapped in close proximity to each other over Christmas. That is a story to which we can all relate and one that Goldman expertly draws upon to form the foundations of his fantastically funny script. It’s the best script I’ve encountered this year.
I’m not in the habit of recommending seasonal shows, thinking it a bit of a cheap novelty overall, but in this case I shall make an exception. No matter what time of year it is I would recommend this show but approaching Christmas makes it all the more relevant without being overwhelming. This is the show to see this winter.
Written by James Goldman; Directed by Trevor Nunn; At the Haymarket Theatre; Starring Robert Lindsay, Joanna Lumley, Tom Bateman, James Norton, Joseph Drake, Rory Fleck-Byrne and Sonya Cassidy; Runs from 05 November 11 - 28 January 12.
John Ord (09/11/2011)