SALT LAKE CITY — When James Goldman‘s The Lion in Winter first premiered in 1966, the reception was (at best) tepid. Two years later, a star-studded film adaptation allowed this underrated gem to reinvent itself and become the staple of academic and community productions everywhere. Like many, I first fell in love with Goldman’s script when I was part of an ill-advised production in high school. Whatever missteps that production had, and I am sure they were legion, my love for this script and the historical family it is based on has remained true and bordering on obsessive. Cue my excitement and trepidation when I saw it announced as part of Pioneer Theatre Company’s season.
The Lion in Winter is set in 1183 during Christmas court for the king of England, Henry II; the play features the king, his three surviving sons, his estranged wife, his mistress, and his ally/adversary, the king of France. Henry II is king of England, lord of much of what is now France and one of the greatest soldiers of his time. Yet, he is concerned with how his legacy will be handled when he dies. Henry needs clarity, but he also has some family issues. What better occasion to address all ills and concerns than Christmas?
If this sounds a bit like King Lear, you aren’t wrong. There are Shakespearean allusions throughout the script, but that is part of the joy of watching this tragic, funny, brilliant masterclass on rhetoric unfold. It is, at turns, a Greek tragedy, a soap opera, and the height of operatic melodrama, peppered with Oscar Wilde-esque quips. But at heart The Lion in Winter is a story about a family struggling to communicate. Historical accuracy is not the point. The characters and setting are factual, but the events are from Goldman’s imagination.
Director Wes Grantom embraced all the flaws and the glory of the script and focused on the timelessness of the story of family. The whole production has a modern cinematic sensibility that gives novelty to a 50-year-old play. There is a youthfulness and immediacy to the action and relationships under Grantom’s guidance.
Esau Pritchett as Henry II stalks the stage with a soldier’s assurance and a king’s power. Henry may no longer be in his physical prime, but he is experienced and capable. Pritchett commands attention and uses honeyed tones to persuade, seduce, refute, and deny based on Henry’s objectives. Matching Henry gibe for gibe is his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (played by Celeste Ciulla). Eleanor is older, wiser, and shrewder than her husband. She does her fair share of beguiling, but hers is a more subtle and frankly sensual tact. Ciulla completely embodies the epic queen, making her presence and power absolutely tangible. Ciulla was made for delivering the malice-laden compliments and soulful pleas that Eleanor hurls with abandon.
Pritchett and Ciulla are well-matched as a troubled couple and parents to sniping sons. Richard (played by William Connell), Geoffrey (played by Damian Jermaine Thompson), and John (played by Austin Reed Alleman) are the ultimate sibling rivals. They maneuver and strategically strike at each other and their parents in endless attempts to gain the upper hand. Richard is the soldier’s soldier, but yearns for paternal approval. Geoffrey is absolutely Machiavellian, but is desperate for recognition. John is a spoiled mess trying to match the cleverness around him and failing at every turn. The brothers are the best and worst of their parents personified, which is why their parents struggle with them so. Connell is a solid Richard, exuding power but vulnerable when it comes to his family. Alleman’s John is full of teenage entitlement and angst, yet manages to be frustratingly endearing. However, it is Thompson’s Geoffrey that manages to best match the power of Pritchett and Ciulla on stage both vocally and physically. Thompson gives Geoffrey a fire that makes his cold calculations much more interesting to watch.
As a whole, the family’s complicated relationship is layered and full of past joy and betrayals, which gives stark contrast to the more simplistic and possessive relationship between Henry and his young mistress, Alais (played by Maryan Abdi). Alais is meant to marry one of Henry’s sons, but which one and when is one of the many issues this Christmas court is meant to sort out. Abdi as Alais is fresh faced and dulcet, capturing the naiveté and hero worship Alais is built on and mostly side-stepping the problem of her being more of a talking plot device rather than a full character. Similar character issues are faced by Grayson DeJesus as Philip, the young king of France. Philip is set up to be the foil for Henry, but rather becomes a half-hearted protégé and ally. Still, DeJesus gives Philip a smarmy swagger that sets his machinations apart from the other plotting.
Phillip R. Lowe‘s costumes are part Game of Thrones and part A Knight’s Tale. The costumes bring vivid color and diverse textures to the medieval silhouettes, reflecting the script’s penchant for anachronism and Grantom’s modern sensibility. The set by Jason Simms is a gorgeous Gothic confection, arches and buttresses bathed in dramatic lighting by Driscoll Otto. Sound design by Allan Branson and hair and makeup design by Amanda French provide softness to complete the fairy tale vibe to the overall design.
The Lion in Winter is, at its heart, a story about a remorseful and resentful family unit, full of ghosts and missed opportunities. The high drama of this unlikely holiday entanglement is not so different from many modern stories, and I think that is why this production felt fresh. Whether it is 1183 or 2019, family is way more complicated than we often are willing to understand.