“It’s a hard play,” said director Jenny Sullivan when I spoke with her last week, just a few minutes before she went into a rehearsal for Ensemble Theatre Company’s upcoming production of The Lion in Winter. Pausing slightly before she finished her thought, Sullivan added “because these characters are lethal.” Although The Lion in Winter remains best known as the source for the 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins, the piece was originally a stage play by James Goldman, and, in recent years, it has come back into vogue with directors around the world. (For starters, there’s a Trevor Nunn production going right now in the West End.) Like the film, and the West End production for that matter, this Lion is a vehicle for star turns. Stephanie Zimbalist, a bona fide star and longtime associate of Sullivan’s, will take on Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Hepburn role in the film and the piece’s central character. The year is 1183, and Eleanor is married to King Henry II of England, but she’s only just now returning to his Chinon chateau after 10 years imprisonment — at his order. It seems that 10 years ago, she colluded with Henry’s sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John to overthrow the not-so-old (50 now, 40 then) old man. Eleanor has come back to participate in an elaborate Christmas Court designed to settle once and for all the increasingly urgent question of succession to the throne.
Playwright Goldman took off from a historical fact — Eleanor of Aquitaine’s imprisonment by Henry II — but soon left the record behind in pursuit of a more dramatic version of reality. Goldman is superbly aware of literary precedent, and The Lion in Winter at once appropriates the setting and overthrows the verbal style of Shakespeare’s history plays. It takes their characteristic royal intrigue and adds to it dialogue with teeth sharp as a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As the heat of ambition burns in the English royal family, two young wild cards arrive — one is the 17-year-old French king, Philip Capet, and the other, his beautiful half-sister, Alais Capet, who becomes Henry’s mistress. Plot and counterplot ensue, and even though it never happened, it makes for great theater.
Sullivan describes Eleanor as “the master manipulator” and the one who drives the action. “She’s been locked up by Henry for 10 years,” said Sullivan, but even though she has cause to want payback, “the core of her being remains her love for Henry.” What has spread to her children, though, is not love but rather her ambivalence, which Sullivan describes as “toxic.” The resulting action often exceeds even the notoriously extended range of tragedy, taking The Lion in Winter into a theatrical genre territory all its own. “Horrific things happen,” said Sullivan, “and then Eleanor walks in and says something funny.” Sounds like a family holiday in the country.
Hollywood and stage veteran Eric Pierpoint takes the lead, opposite Zimbalist, as Henry II. Several young actors get key roles in The Lion, including 2011 Indy Award winner Daniel Stewart as the king’s favorite and youngest son, John. Paul David Story plays the French king, and Thea Brooks plays Alais. The excitement of having seven actors working together on the relatively small Alhecama Theatre stage adds another dimension to this promising upcoming production from Ensemble.
The Lion in Winter shows at the Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.) Thursday, December 1-Sunday, December 18, with the official opening night on Saturday, December 3. For tickets and information, call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.