Henry II – Robert Lindsay
Eleanor of Acquitaine – Joanna Lumley
Richard – Tom Bateman
Geoffrey – James Norton
John – Joseph Drake
Phillip of France – Rory Fleck-Byrne
Princess Alais of France – Sonya Cassidy
Author – James Goldman
Director – Trevor Nunn
Set and Costumes – Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting – Peter Mumford
Music – Steven Edis
This is a very odd play indeed. I think James Goldman had just had a particularly horrendous family Christmas (is there any other kind?) and needed to exorcise some demons when he decided to write this; although the action concerns Henry II’s attempts to sort out who is going to succeed him to the thrones of England and France, with a slight tweak here and there, a change of set and the addition of a cocktail cabinet, glasses of whisky and some cigarettes this could easily be a cross between Seasons Greetings and something written by Edward Albee in the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” vein – you know, vile people being vile to other vile people, but given extra angst by being set at Christmas. In fact, the play is so chock full of anachronisms that it starts to become a contest between what you are seeing (Norman arches, stone flagged floors and medieval costumes) and what you are hearing (modern dialogue, references to Christmas trees and dahlias). Gradually the dialogue wins and you start to tune out the visuals. It takes a while for this to happen, and until it does, the play staggers slowly uphill until you reach the crest, and then you just start to coast down the far side. Its an uneasy blend, however – you start to look for the cocktail cabinet and the ashtrays. Added to the problem is that there are odd elements of farce – two characters end up hiding behind the arras to eavesdrop – and a bizarre “gay clinch” between Prince Richard and the Crown Prince of France, which is interrupted by the entrance of another character, so Richard rushes to the four poster bed, jumps in and pulls the curtains. Its all neither fish nor fowl – neither historical drama nor family comedy but an uneasy blend of both.
There’s quite a lot of pain and hurt in the play and the text isn’t best served by the broad style of acting adopted by most of the cast – Richard Lindsay struggles to make Henry anything more than a direct ancestor of his character in My Family (and in fact now I think of it, the entire play could be summed up as no more than a feature length Christmas episode of this unaccountably popular sitcom. Substitute Zoe Wannamaker for Joanna Lumley and all it needs is canned laughter). Still, the humour isn’t subtle, so I suppose the best way of dealing with this is just to point yourself towards the end of the play and go for it. There is a certain amount of scenery-chewing but compared to the film its all pretty tame stuff.
Lindsay, as I said above, makes Henry just a medieval Ben Fowler and Joanna Lumley is really just Joanna Lumley in a wimple. She mugs just that little bit too much and brings little of Eleanor’s regality to the part, there’s a distinct lack of gravitas here. The three princes are more or less indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable, but Lindsay and Lumley really do show that they are masters of their craft in comparison, with their every consonant pointed and every syllable audible, whereas Messrs Bateman, Norton and Drake all seem to have their volume setting turned down to “indistinct”. The roles played by Ms. Cassidy and Mr. Fleck-Burne are so negligible anyway alongside all the roaring, pacing about and barbed witticisms that they never really register on your consciousness.
The set is pretty and quite clever, with a double revolve disguised as the circles of stone flags around two columns of a Norman-arched nave, and this brings on and takes off various bits of furniture, but its all too clean and pretty to be anything like realistic. There's little sense of it being winter - certainly everything looks bright, warm and cheerful. Costumes are kind of “all purpose 12th century” and the lighting is effective and well thought out. But the slightly ridiculous plot and modern dialogue make it an odd evening. It’s a little like a theatrical version of “Horrible Histories”.
What the critics thought:
Ready for a bit of scenery-chewing?