As a piece of history about medieval politics and statecraft, James Holdman’s 1966 Broadway play about a fictional Christmas in the warring court of Henry II at Chinon castle is preposterous and absurd hokum. As a family drama, this story of Henry’s three sons, the succession and the plotting of his magnetically witty but ultimately treacherous Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is fun but ultimately thin fare.
Robert Lindsay (King Henry II) and Joanna Lumley (Queen Eleanor) in The Lion In Winter at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
It is a strange revival this, taking this glorious West End venue into the Christmas weeks with an unusual story of medieval backbiting set in designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ sumptuous backdrop of castle stone, gorgeous tapestries, Yuletide logs and caroling.
But it needs some good performances if it isn’t to descend into a medieval version of Dallas, or Blackadder or - perhaps even worst of all - a Carry on Up the 12th Century.
After all, key medieval personnel Thomas Becket and Abelard and Heloise are mentioned with a careless knowing wink from a 20th century eye (acknowledged by the author’s notes to the text). There is another deliciously deliberate postmodern step out of history moment when Eleanor bellows: “Of course he’s got a knife we have all got a knife, it’s 1183 and we are still barbarians.”
Nunn has his own fun, at one point furnishing his set with a totally anachronistic Christmas tree, complete with wrapped presents underneath it. One wouldn’t be surprised if one of them contains an X Box or two.
Because this is very much a jokey family drama, and given that at no stage do any soldiers, servants or retianers make any appearance. you could be forgiven for doubting the protagonist’s regal status at all.
Except of course when Robert Lindsay’s Henry is around. Leonine at times, playful wisecracking and witty at others, he is a very modern hero, feeling modern feelings, in a defiantly modern play. But there’s rarely a moment when he doesn’t carry a very definite and impressive sense of kingship and authority and boy does this play need good leads.
Joanna Lumley’s Eleanor is many things but she’s not that, alas. She is also regality personified, purely by virtue of who the actress is, but one wonders at times whether she is acting at all and not just being herself. There are simply too many big, camp theatrical sighs and a constant predilection for Tommy Cooper ‘just-like-that’ hand gestures as she spars with her husband in scenes powerfully reminiscent of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (written two years before).
Goldman’s sons are written as very distinct parts and Joseph Drake does a neat turn as the spotty, surly, greasy haired spotty Prince John, Henry’s favourite. Tom Bateman’s Prince Richard (Eleanor’s choice for successor) is all bluster and action, while James Norton’s smart and wily Prince Geoffrey (who no-one wants on the throne) does well with the little character definition he Is dealt.
Nunn is also very careful not to let the play drag and it fairly whips along, even if this adds to its sometimes annoyingly farcical feel.
But ultimately one is left wondering why Nunn made the effort to revive a play that has to work far too hard if it is to be the spiced wine to cheer seasonal West End hearts, and whether something which is so defiantly unusual and unserious is really worth bothering with in the first place.