The Knight before Christmas: Trevor Nunn revives the Lion in Winter

12th November 2011 (evening) preview

With Christmas fast approaching, like many our thoughts turn to festive family gatherings, mulled wine around a log fire, a tree in the corner, and entertaining conversation.  Doubtless these were the thoughts of King Henry the Second at Chinon in 1183, where we find him ensconced with his mistress, the 23 year old Alais, waiting for the rest of his dysfunctional family to join him: his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, put under house arrest for 10 years for leading revolts against her husband; Richard the eldest, a warrior prince intent on taking his father’s kingdom one way or another; Geoffrey the schemer, intent on getting someone else to take what he wants and John, Henry’s favourite despite being the least able to rule.  Held in contempt by everyone else, he is described variously as a ‘pustule’ and ‘smelling of manure’.  We sense no one will be having a very merry Christmas.

James Goldman’s play does not claim to have any historical accuracy, but he cleverly interweaves real historical events and characters to suggest what might have been, and gives us a ‘prequel’ to the stories of Richard I and King John.  Ever wondered why Richard I spent almost his entire life away from his ‘loved ones’ fighting wars on the other side of the world?  Ever wondered why King John made himself so unpopular?  You might find the answer here.  The play itself is packed with sharp and witty dialogue as the warring family tear into each other, swapping and realigning allegiances, using house guest King Phillip of France as a focal point.  Henry’s desire to finalise his successor is constantly undermined from all sides (including himself), but we are left in no doubt that Eleanor is his match, and they love and hate each other in equal measure.

The cast of Trevor Nunn’s revival have a tough act to follow, when we consider the cast of the 1968 film, which included Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins and a very youthful Timothy Dalton.  Robert Lindsay reminds us what an accomplished actor he is, and this role allows him to combine the gravitas required for a King with the sharp wit that has made him so popular in TV sitcoms.  He dominates the stage with ease, and we often found ourselves waiting for him to come back.  In some respects, Joanna Lumley is perfectly cast as Queen Eleanor.  She has a natural regal quality and is believable as the aging queen, reduced to using her feminine wiles to get what she wants.  However, the play demands an emotional rawness which ultimately she doesn’t deliver – perhaps her lack of stage experience is a factor. 

When it comes to the supporting cast, none of the actors really seem to get to grips with their characters.  The action feels as if it’s being played on one level, without any sense of the deeper emotions that drive them, and without this depth, the conflict becomes uninvolving.  Looking at the bios of the younger actors, we were not surprised to find that they had very little professional stage experience.  We were surprised however that Trevor Nunn chose to cast them – these are not minor roles.  It is traditional to say nice things about the set as a euphemism for not liking the rest of the production.  In this case however, we would like to say that we really did like the set.  Stephen Brimson Lewis has created a cavernous space which convincingly suggests a medieval castle, uncluttered with only the essential furnishings and props and assisted by some imaginative and atmospheric lighting designed by Peter Mumford. 

Did this play deserve a revival?  We can see why the play has retained its popularity, with its sparkling dialogue, clever use of historical characters, and refreshing lack of reverence.  But with every role a gem, this should be a vehicle for a high-calibre cast.  Unfortunately only Robert Lindsay fitted this description.

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2 Responses to The Knight before Christmas: Trevor Nunn revives the Lion in Winter

  1. Pingback: Dial “I” for idiots: Ladykillers at the Gielgud | rageoffstage

  2. Pingback: Don’t mention the crusades: Holy Warriors at Shakespeare’s Globe | rageoffstage

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