The Lion in Winter is currently playing at the historic Hoover Theater in San Jose, CA, TheatrePublications.com and is brilliantly directed by Dinna Myers and staged by the Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company @ShadyShakes .
I love all the plays put up by Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company and this historic fictional play is no exception. The Lion in Winter is set during Christmas 1183, at the Palace of King Henry II. At this time, there is an acrimonious, witty, sarcastic, and bitter family drama evolving as Henry, at the winter of his life, is not only going through a mid-life crisis but is also seriously contemplating the issue of inheritance of the throne. Henry is favoring his third son, Prince John. His estranged wife Queen Eleanor is however, bestowing her favor on the oldest son, Prince Richard the Lionheart. Henry has locked up Eleanor in Salisbury Tower, while he is having an affair with Alais, who lives at the court, who was brought up by Eleanor, and is betrothed to Henry’s son, the future king Richard I of England. Here is how Henry, a known philanderer, professes his love to Alais, “In my time I’ve known contessas, milkmaids, courtesans and novices, whores, gypsies, jades, and little boys, but nowhere in God’s western world have I found anyone to love but you.” As Henry is contemplating formally announcing the successor, he has also brought his estranged wife Eleanor from the prison. Also present at the court is Alais, deeply in love with Henry, and her half-brother, King Philip II of France, the son and successor of Louis VII of France, Eleanor’s ex-husband. Philip demands that either his half-sister wed Prince Richard, as per the agreement or Henry return the dowry. As a ruse, Henry agrees to give Alais to Richard and make him heir-apparent. He makes a side deal with Eleanor for her freedom, in return for Aquitaine, to be given to John. When the deal is revealed at the wedding, Richard refuses to go through with the ceremony, since he expects to get Aquitaine, with the throne. Meanwhile, Prince John, Henry’s thus far favored son, feels betrayed, and begins to plot a war on England. In the continuing jostling for power no one can trust anyone and everyone makes and breaks deals. Prince Geoffrey aligns first with one brother than with the other, not knowing if John, the father’s favorite will ascend the throne or Richard, the mother’s favorite. At one point, he tells one of them, “I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We’re a knowledgeable family”. And at one point Eleanor tells Henry, “I have a confession. I don’t much like our children” and at another point she says, “Oh Henry, we mangled every thing we touched”.
Henry is frustrated and dismisses all three sons as unsuitable, and locks them in the dungeon. Here is what Henry says, “My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne’s. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. She bore him many children. But no sons. King Henry had no sons. He had three whiskered things but he disowned them”. Henry makes plans to travel to Rome for an annulment, so that he can have new sons with Alais. But despite her rose tinted view of Henry, she is very clear about the implications of her marriage with Henry. She tells Henry that he would not be able to ever release his sons from the prison, or they would be a threat to his future children and was he, a father, willing to forever imprison his own sons? Henry sees that she is right and goes to see his sons in the dungeon. At the same time Eleanor has also gone there, sneaking in knives to help the sons escape. But instead of escaping, the sons plot to kill their father. Henry and his sons have a battle, first with words and then with swords. In the end, Henry cannot bring himself to kill them, and he breaks down. The sons too cannot bring themselves to kill Henry, and instead they escape.
This very English play was full of wit, humor, sarcasm, and understatements like Eleanor saying, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs”? And it has suspense, intrigue, making promises, breaking deals, plotting, and double crossing. The play is brilliantly acted and as is typical of Shady Shakespeare plays, the stage designs and costumes are gorgeous and truly amazing. Shady Shakespeare has been staging public performances of William Shakespeare’s works in the South Bay and on the Peninsula since 1999. The company will begin its Shakespeare Under the Stars performances July 27 to Sept. 2 in Saratoga, presenting King Lear and Pericles.