THE LION IN WINTER, a play by James Goldman. Staged
by Noel Willman;
presented by Eugene V. Wolsk, Walter A. Hyman and Alan King, with Emanuel
Azenberg; scenery and costumes by Will Steven Armstrong; lighting by Tharon
Musser; incidental music by Thomas Wagner; production manager, Jose
Vega. At the Ambassador theater, 215 West 49th Street.
Henry II, King of England.............Robert Preston
Philip, King of France.............Christopher Walken
The title character of "The Lion in Winter," which opened last night at the Ambassador, is King Henry II of England. The play is about Henry's trials and troubles with his wife and his three sons in the matter of choosing his successor. James Goldman has written the work with intelligence, some astringent wit and much theatrical skill; but all through the evening, the wrong question keeps growing in us, What is Henry's successor to us?
In other words, Mr. Goldman's play -- for all its considerable cleverness of construction, pith and mercurial storming of moods -- never really shakes or concerns us. His characters are recognizable but not affecting; his drama is discernible but not gripping; and a theme -- to justify the existence of the play here and now -- is hard to find.
It is the year 1183 at the castle of Chinon. Henry has summoned his Christmas Court here (a kind of family holiday party) -- in France because he is king of more French territory than British. Here his three sons, Richard, (later the Lion - Hearted), Geoffrey and John, the youngest, have come. Here Henry has brought his milky mistress, the Frenchwoman Alais. Here too, he has brought his estranged wife, released pro-tem from Salisbury Tower, where he usually keeps her -- the remarkable Eleanor of Aquitaine. Here, too, has come Philip, the young King of France.
Almost every one of the above, except Alais, is a plotter: for provinces and marriages, but mostly for the royal succession. (In those days the crown did not pass automatically to the eldest child.) The chief plotter is King Henry himself because he wants lands from his wife to go with the son of his choice. And in the main -- although there are plenty of other broils and countebroils -- the battle of wits and will is a love-and-hate game between him and his old wife.
Yet the cleverness of their encounters pall, because they take on a pattern. Every scene -- theirs and others -- seems to begin with a statement of intent; which turns out to be a deception; which turns out to be a deliberately transparent deception, and so on. For a while, it has the very meritable effect of seeming like diluted Shaw, particularly as, in a much lesser degree, Mr. Goldman has the same liking for an occasional present-day locution in the middle of royal rhetoric. But before long, the dilution is greater than the resemblance to the original; and the play -- when it is admirable or when it is less so -- becomes merely observable and remote.
The tone of the writing and the structure are less dramatic than theatrical. That is, we are much less aware of import below import than of surfaces. True, theatrical accomplishments are not nothing in these days when the theater's blood runs thin; but if they are not nothing, neither are they enough.
Noel Willman's direction plays to the script's strength, and thus paradoxically underscores its weakness. By emphasizing the building of climax and scene for their own sakes -- by dwelling on and reveling in stagecraft he makes the most of those qualities, at the same time revealing that not enough else is present.
Robert Preston, bushy-bearded and curly-maned as the lion, barrels his body and voice along with astonishing energy. Subtlety is not his strong point, nor is range of color; and he sometimes substitutes energy for emotion. But Mr. Preston fills a theater with his presence. One is not likely to nod when he's around even if -- as in a Lear-like curse that he delivers at the end of the first act -- one is never greatly moved.
The marvel of the evening is Rosemary Harris as Eleanor -- especially marvelous when we consider that her last appearance was as a stock ingenue in "You Can't Take It With You." Having said that, I must go on to report that the marvel consists of her displaying a repertory of dazzling acting resources -- all seemingly conscious, all audience - winning, and all clearly visible. As an admirer of some standing, I have never seen her show more scintillating virtuosity. But, I have seen her virtuosity less apparent.
The three sons are all well and stylishly played by Bruce Scott (John), Dennis Cooney (Geoffrey) and James Rado (Richard). Christopher Walken gives a silky, proud, performance as King Philip. Will Steven Armstrong's scenic elements, out of Romanesque cloisters, are arranged and rearranged to make a good series of settings.
Mr. Goldman's play, like its acting and direction, has qualities in it to respect. But, ultimately, one does not want to respect a play, one wants to be taken by it sometimes without respect). That fundamental capture is especially important with a historical play, or else the author leaves us wondering why he went back to that particular time and place. At the last, it is this question that Mr. Goldman, for all his merits, has not answered.
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