With the Yuletide about to peep over the horizon, thoughts are already turning to the big day and how to spend it. For many people, Christmas is still a time to be with the family, even if the mere idea of being in the same room as siblings, parents and other relations brings on a nervous rash. It's a masochistic ritual we almost seem to relish in an odd kind of way, and that is neatly captured in James Goldman's 'The Lion In Winter', but on a grander scale.
It is 1183 and Robert Lindsay is King Henry II who has assembled his family for Christmas. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (or 'The Great Bitch' as Henry fondly calls her), has been brought out of prison where her husband incarcerated her for plotting to kill him. Also at the gathering is Henry's mistress Princess Alais, King Philip of France and Henry's three sons Richard, Geoffrey and John.
This festive season, though, is not merely about quarrelling over presents after swigging down copious quantities of mulled wine. In this lion's den everyone has much more important matters on their minds. The nagging question is who Henry will choose to succeed him. At first, it seems that the youngest son, John, is the favourite candidate. However, almost in the blink of an eye, Henry decides to appoint Richard as heir, which later appears to be a bluff. In the meantime, the sons start plotting with Philip to wage war on Henry while Eleanor eagerly stirs-up the hornets' nest desperate to regain control of Aquitaine. Confused? Well, as Eleanor says: “It is 1183 and we are still barbarians”. And these barbarians will change sides at the drop of a hat if they think it will benefit them. But after a while it is very hard to believe any of these characters or to predict what will happen next.
Robert Lindsay is rather like the King of the Jungle – a bombastic manipulator who enjoys being boss. He growls and roars from time-to-time, provokes his sons and, egged-on by Eleanor, almost succumbs to murdering them. Hardly the good father one might think and he has similar views, describing himself at one point as the 'master bastard'. Very apt. Nevertheless, he also shows there is a humorous side to his personality. Joanna Lumley's scheming Eleanor is a hard-hearted and icy-veined sort of mother, referring to her offspring as 'the greedy trinity'. She is a keen match for Henry, but never gets close to getting her own way. And even when she declares her love for Henry and summons up real tears, one cannot help feeling that this is just another trick - a final desperate ploy to avoid being returned to her lonely prison and to regain Aquitaine.
The characterisations are polished and Stephen Brimson Lewis's setting is impressively detailed and suitably evocative. I don't know if the Christmas tree and presents were evident in the festivities of the twelfth century, but they certainly do not provide cause for irritation. And it does not really matter anyway because this is not so much a history play as a domestic sitcom laced with some historical flavouring. Entertaining and mildly amusing, it certainly captures the characteristics of one kind of family Christmas where rivalries and petty jealousies spill out all over the decorations and lead to people storming out of the room in tears, or worse. In the end though, the deception, betrayals and reversals of allegiances leave no room for any affection or anything closely resembling real love. It is impossible to warm to any of the characters here because they are all egotists who will do anything to get what they want. And that might be the point, but there is little else about the play that is particularly memorable.
"It’s historical hokum but high-class hokum"
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"Although Nunn directs the whole event with great efficiency, one is left wondering why he bothered"
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Is Joanna Lumley a top stage actress? Not on the evidence of last night"
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail