Theatre review: The Lion in Winter

Families clash in Trevor Nunn’s reworking of medieval drama

Many families have their own civil wars that come to a head at Christmas, but with the Plantagenet clan, familial warfare becomes something more literal.

James Goldman’s creaky and hollow 1966 historical romp is better known for the film adaptation starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. Quite why Trevor Nunn deemed it worth reviving is uncertain as it resembles a particularly feeble Alan Ayckbourn play in medieval costume.

Filled with deliberately planted anachronisms, the play is an incoherent mixture of heightened language and Shakespearean allusions combined with unfunny post-modern jokiness.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, who has been locked up in a tower for over a decade as the result of a botched revolution against Henry II, her husband and co-ruler of an Anglo-French empire, is paraded out for the festive period.


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Their three petulant sons (all one-note roles) compete for the biggest present on offer, Daddy’s kingdom, culminating in a half-hearted attempt at patricide.

As a star vehicle for Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley, they effectively convey the intensity of Henry and Eleanor’s complicated relationship and their never-ending love-hate power struggle. Lindsay mixes roguish charisma with sitcom shtick and Lumley makes an entertainingly camp faded beauty.

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If The Lion in Winter is supposed to show that the Plantagenets weren’t so different from us, Goldman’s repetitive script isn’t incisive enough to make us care. The only real comfort and joy is knowing that he went on to write the book for Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Follies.

* The Lion in Winter is showing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Haymarket, SW1, until January 28.

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