The Lion in Winter: What Family Doesn’t Have its Ups and Downs?

Newark becomes twelfth century France as Chapel Street Players presents The Lion in Winter, James Goldman’s 1966 play depicting the personal and political conflicts of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their children and their guests during Christmas 1183. The play stars John Barker, Corinne McMahon, Sean McGuire, Paul Henry, Steve Travers, Cindy Starcher, and Timothy Sheridan under the direction of Gwen Armstrong Barker.

Cindy Starcher,  Paul Henry ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

It’s Christmas 1183 at Henry II of England’s castle in Chinon, Anjou, Angevin Empire. Eleanor, whom Henry has had imprisoned since 1173 for attempting to kill him, is arriving at Chinon for a holiday visit with her family. The story, which has themes of sibling rivalry, infidelity, parental favoritism, and abusive power, centers around a battle for the throne between Henry and Eleanor, their three surviving sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John, and their Christmas Court guest, the King of France, Philip II Augustus, who was the son of Eleanor’s ex-husband, Louis VII of France. Henry favors John (since his eldest son and namesake is deceased), the sulky and sullen youngest son, who is in all ways a spoiled brat, as his successor while Eleanor backs Richard, a more virile and regal choice. Meanwhile, Geoffrey schemes in the background as the family engages in a dynastic chess match with the crown as the prize and Alais, Philip’s half-sister, who has been at court since she was betrothed to Richard at age eight, but has since become Henry’s mistress, an unwilling pawn in this grueling stalemate.

John Barker, Corrine McMahon ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

Goldman wrote Lion some four years after Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and although this twelfth century battle royal echoes that greater play, the historical fact-based work may not resonate quite so well with contemporary audiences, so Goldman infused his play with modern day jocularity to help us relate to these Plantagenet schemers. It works to a degree. Lion is more historical farce than Shakespearian drama and plays much funnier on stage than the more solemn 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn with an overabundance of one-liners such as, “What shall we hang, the holly or each other?” And this gem by Eleanor, “Henry’s bed is Henry’s province, he can people it with sheep for all I care… which on occasion he has done.” The scene in which Henry arrives in Philip’s bedroom for round two of their political negotiations, only to discover that all three of his sons are cowering behind tapestries and have been plotting against him plays more like a Feydeau farce (or at least a Joe Orton one). The comedy becomes rather spicy when Henry learns that manly Richard the Lionheart, with all his prickling aggression has been having a gay fling with Philip.

Sean McGuire, Paul Henry ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

What really drives the play is the relationship between Henry II and his once beloved queen. The marital slugfest between Henry (John Barker) and Eleanor (Cindy Starcher) is like Albee’s George and Martha, each striking sparks off of each other like swords against stone in furious quarrels. Equally shocking are the sudden kindhearted moments where we discover the vestiges of their love and tenderness. Barker delivers a nice performance, swaggering around the stage with a mixture of rage and charming wit. Starcher affectingly suggests a woman all too aware that she is no longer in her prime, but who refuses to give ground to her husband. When Henry and Eleanor tear chunks of flesh from one another like two vultures, it makes for good theater.

Timothy Sheridan, Steve Travers ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

Steve Travers does a fine turn as Richard, the aggressive, handsome warrior and future king. Paul Henry stands out as the cold, amoral schemer Geoffrey. He’s attractive, charming, and has the strongest intellect of the family. Sean McGuire’s characterization of John is a bit more puzzling. John is described as spoiled, fearful, and weak with a boyish outlook. McGuire’s portrayal of John, however, is not so much overindulged, malcontent teen as it is gay and campy, which may not be the intent, but either through direction or interpretation, comes off that way. Nevertheless, McGuire provides some great comic moments. Corinne McMahon plays Alais, Henry’s mistress, with grace and quiet confidence while Timothy Sheridan delivers a splendid performance as Philip who is impressive and handsome. Philip is not as adept at manipulation as Henry, but acquires greater skill as the play unfolds.

John Barker, Cindy Starcher ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

Gwen Armstrong-Barker does a nice job with this production. Although long at nearly three hours, the play moves along and doesn’t get too bogged down. However, a purple pillow upon which to sit my ass is sorely needed. The scene changes are overlong and involved, with several people moving about, placing and replacing props as if they were making it up on the spot. Curtis King and Gwen Armstrong-Barker deserve high marks for their set design. Joseph Pukatsch, in addition to filling the role of stage manager, also did nice work as the sound and lighting designer. Finally, compliments to Sean McGuire for costume design. 

However terrible your own yuletide celebrations prove; however vicious the infighting, they are nothing compared to Henry II’s Christmas party at his castle Chinon in 1183. The Lion in Winter runs through November 23rd. Call the box office at (302) 368-2248 or visit to reserve your tickets today.

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