Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Historical Knockabout

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Historical Knockabout

Article excerpt

The Lion in Winter

Haymarket, until 28 January Salt, Root and Roe Trafalgar Studios, until 3 December It's a palace drama with all the trimmings.

Trevor Nunn's new production, The Lion in Winter, plunges us into the court of Henry II and his spurned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as they struggle to decide which of their three sons should inherit the throne. Eleanor, held prisoner in a deluxe royal fortress, has been granted leave to join the family at Christmas. 'Thanks for letting me out, ' she says, on their first meeting. 'It's only for the holidays, ' jokes Henry. Clearly a king who locks his wife in the broom cupboard won't pay much heed to her views on the succession. So there's an emotional and dramatic illogicality here right from the start. And, right from the start, the playwright couldn't give a stuff. Which helps.

The script is an unashamed slice of historical knockabout aimed well below Bernard Shaw level and a few notches above Carry On. 'He's got a knife!' yells a princelet when a blade is pulled. 'Of course he's got a knife, ' soothes his mother. 'We've all got knives. It's 1183.' Some things are done superbly, some atrociously. Set and costumes look great. The well-scrubbed castle is a magnificent arrangement of vaulted arches, receding in cleverly mendacious perspective, which gives the impression of boundless space. Brilliant stuff. And the drapes are exquisite. An odd thing to say about drapes but these are lush and lovely acres of cloth, hung from a dominant position, and gathered to create shadowy ripples of descending parabolas. Truly magical.

If only Sir Trev had paid more attention during the auditions. The three princes are seriously bad. John is a shouty, annoying little prat. Richard is a shouty, annoying big prat. And Geoffrey is bit of both and a bit of neither. Sighs of gratitude surge forth whenever the bickering trio withdraw, and the stars take centre stage. Joanna Lumley does a cracking turn as Eleanor. Melancholy, languid, spikily intelligent and often very funny, she fits brilliantly into the slender groove where the play resides. She's matched for starry charisma by Robert Lindsay as Henry.

Lindsay is a trickster type, a cynical outsider who excels at playing subversive smart alecs. Majesty isn't his natural register and although he can suggest authority, by flexing his vocal amplifier and frowning aggressively, he does it like a Community Patrol Officer. …

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