THE LION KING

"Family values" have been ballyhooed by politicians so mindlessly that it may come as a shock to take a good, hard look at a nuclear family from the Dark Ages. Phoenix Theatre affords us this chance with its production of James Goldman's The Lion in Winter.

The play deals with one of the most remarkable families in history, that of King Henry II of England, who has inspired a number of interlocking plays, including ones by T.S. Eliot and Jean Anouilh. The original production of The Lion in Winter played only 92 performances on Broadway in 1966, but two years later was made into a film that won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and earned Katharine Hepburn the third of her four awards as Best Actress. Henry succeeded to the throne in 1154, becoming the first of the Plantagenet kings who would rule England for 300 years. His reign is associated with some of the most dramatic characters in history. Henry's first chancellor was Thomas … Becket, whose defense of the church against the authority of the king is dramatized in Eliot's 1935 Murder in the Cathedral, a somber elegy in verse that delivers more high-toned sentiments than drama or suspense. Anouilh's 1960 Becket focuses on the male bonding of these two horny young men, whose relationship was altered dramatically when Henry, trying to muscle power from the church, appointed his rowdy adolescent companion, the archbishop of Canterbury. This cynical move proves a tragic miscalculation, for Becket discovers that he has been an empty vessel and, filled with his duty to God, becomes Henry's most implacable enemy. Unable to cope with this betrayal, Henry wishes Becket dead; goons obediently seek to ease the king's suffering by fulfilling that wish.

Passed over lightly in these treatments is one of Henry's most formidable foes, the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine. In an age in which marriage was often motivated by the acquisition of power, France's Louis VII divorced Eleanor two years before Henry became king of England, and Henry promptly married her. After Becket's murder in 1170, Eleanor brought her army to war against her husband, only to be defeated and put in prison, where she remained for 12 years.

It is the tenth year of Eleanor's imprisonment that James Goldman uses to weave his tale, which he depicts as a kind of love story. He imagines a fictional reprieve from prison for the Christmas holiday, in which Eleanor is brought back to Henry's castle to celebrate the season with her family. And what a family it is!

First of the surviving children is Richard, whom history will term "the Lion-Hearted." Eleanor is determined to make him Henry's successor on the throne. Youngest of the brood is Henry's declared favorite, John (he of Magna Carta fame), about whom Shakespeare wrote King John. The middle son, Geoffrey, is a plotter willing to negotiate behind the scenes as regent to whichever of his brothers wins the struggle for power.

There is also Henry's mistress, the beautiful Alais, who has been reared by Eleanor and is sister to the young king of France, Philip. Each of these characters has a plan for consolidating power behind his or her leadership and mounting a challenge for succession to Henry's throne.

Alternating sardonic wit with glib anachronism, Goldman's play is filled with self-conscious irony, such as Eleanor's declaration that since it is the year 1183, their barbaric behavior is excusable.

The contemporary flavor of the play is dramatized in a scene of self-torture from the universal ache of jealousy. In an exquisite moment of masochism, Eleanor asks to watch Henry kiss Alais. Her self-inflicted pain reaches a threshold approaching orgasm.

Ultimately, The Lion in Winter is a play of contemporary sensibilities masquerading as history. It's about the longing to escape the cold night of death, set in a civilization in the throes of transition. It is a portrait of a metamorphosis from the bitter certainty of unfulfilled aspirations to the more terrifying uncertainty of change. Our children, goes the wish, should provide solace for the passing of the torch. But Goldman has dramatized a chilling antidote to this tempting self-delusion by providing a family of selfish misfits, each more mean and pitiful than the next. With sardonic humor, Eleanor complains: "I don't like any of our children!"

Only love, in all its evanescence, is a flickering warmth against the creeping darkness. Henry implores Eleanor: "Let's defy them all and live forever!"

Director Michael D. Mitchell begins the evening promisingly. The audience enters to the medieval sounds of Gregorian chants in a Lenten landscape. The barren embankments of Jeff Thomson and Gro Johre's set stretch across a winter sky. Out of the darkness emerge two naked warriors in mythic combat with broadswords in a mysterious half-light. The clang of the steel rings ominously, a muscular image of raw power. Unfortunately, the production fails to live up to this early promise. The sensuality of Henry and Alais is all the warmth we are allowed to feel as the actors fumble their portrayal of buried passions. In particular, the farcical scene in which Richard is sent by his mother to negotiate with Philip is devoid of any physical heat between these former illicit lovers. I remember a seething kiss in the original production that stunned both the audience and Richard's treacherous siblings, who had hidden behind a curtain to spy.

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