The Lion in Winter
Take Shakespeare's malevolent Richard II for the male lead (Vincent O'Neill); add ultra ambitious Lady Macbeth as his scheming wife (Josephine Hogan); set them
in a relentless marital (and political) struggle à la Edward Albee in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; throw in a touch of King Lear, and viola, you have James Goldman's 1966 play, The Lion in Winter, performed by the highly skilled Irish Classical Theatre Company cast, and ably directed by Brian Cavanagh.
This time, the play should be renamed The Lion and Lioness in Winter because Hogan's Eleanor of Aquitaine and O'Neill's Henry II are equally matched, like watching powerful heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier box 15 brutal rounds. The play premiered on Broadway in 1966, and was adapted by Goldman into an
Academy Award-winning 1968 film, starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn.
The setting is Chinon, France in 1183. The conflict involves a gargantuan psychic chess match between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, his wife, regarding Henry's successor to be chosen from their three sons. Strangely, Henry favours the youngest and most immature, John (Nathan Andrew Miller); Eleanor backs feisty Richard Lionheart, the eldest (Matt Witten); and the man in the middle, Geoffrey, (Todd Benzin) simply schemes with everyone including Philip, King of France (Adam Rath). Henry's mistress, Alais, (Renee Landigran) Philip's sister, is a mere pawn like the three brothers, and the outcome of the exacerbating contest is an exhausting stalemate with Henry ultimately content to keep Eleanor in prison in England (allowed out for Christmas clan gatherings) and intending to produce more suitable male heirs with Alais.
As for dysfunctional families, the Plantagenet's seem not much different from squabbling modern day types who bicker and dissent with Eleanor near the end commenting, "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"
The ICTC cast is a real treat to watch in action in this play, each displaying their skill. O'Neill is perfectly cast with strong voice and kingly strut, a master of rhetoric, able to love and be hateful at the same time, aging yet still virile, always in control until confronted with the sad fact that his empire will surely fall apart if led by any of the sons. Hogan is an equal combatant, sturdy, able to give as well as take, a master schemer on her own, knowing precisely when to press Henry's buttons and when to stop, her nun-like innocent cosseted face concealing Lady Macbeth's inexorable, deadly ambition. Miller, Benzin and Witten take their one-dimensional characterization and work at it wonderfully with only Rath allowed more dexterity as King of France. In comparison the others, Landigran seems too slight at times and lacking in sensual charm with O'Neill's powerful Henry and Hogan's equally adept Eleanor, yet she eventually picks up some malice by osmosis and launches some worthy barbs of her own.
The audience thoroughly enjoyed The Lion in Winter and watching it at ICTC's theatre-in-the-round up close and personal (only three rows), is a thrill indeed. The staging is sparse with only colourful flags on the walls, but the sparse surroundings seem only to increase our focus on characterization. Another plaudit goes to whoever at ICTC is responsible for their consistently attractive signage, always distinctive, always eye-catching and always, one might say, classic.
The Lion in Winter January 16 - February 8, 2015, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm;
Saturdays at 3 pm; Sundays at 2 pm. See: http://www.irishclassicaltheatre.com/