Every family quarrels at Christmas. Not every family has the fate of an empire hanging on its domestic squabbles.
When Eleanor of Aquitaine is the matriarch, it’s not surprising that tempers fray.
One of the wealthiest and cleverest women of the middle ages, Eleanor makes a lively study in Machiavellian charm, especially when played by Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”.)
James Goldman’s 1966 play “The Lion in Winter,” now at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, imagines a fraught Christmas meeting in 1183 between the English king Henry II (Robert Lindsay), his wife Eleanor, and their three ambitious sons. Henry wants John to succeed him, Eleanor wants Richard to inherit instead, and they plot and counter-plot against each other to get their way.
Goldman paints the royal pair as an odd couple who can’t live with or without each other. Henry calls Eleanor “the new medusa, that gorgon,” yet loves her for her fire and energy.
He’s kept her in prison for ten years for a former revolt against him, and still releases her occasionally for family celebrations. When one of Eleanor’s schemes against Henry backfires, he threatens to re-imprison her with Richard.
“Locked up with my son,” she says with amusing iciness. “What mother wouldn’t dream of that?”
There’s a good dose of screwball comedy to oil the political machinations.
In one scene, all three brothers come individually to King Philip of France, a guest at the festivities, to request an alliance to betray their father.
It’s a farce that has the cast making unexpected entrances and hiding behind tapestries (“That’s what tapestries are for,” says Philip.)
When Richard -- that’s Richard the Lionheart -- and King Philip clinch in a passionate kiss just before Henry bursts in upon them, it all adds up to a scene of quickfire fun.
Sometimes the fun gets in the way, and the fast-paced victories and reverses can make the plot feel mechanical and removed from any real emotion.
Henry and Eleanor talk with the kind of forensic asperity about their feelings which you might expect to find at a smart Manhattan cocktail party. It’s witty enough. It also makes the stakes seem too low to care about.
Still, Lumley has a whale of a time. One moment she’s waspish, the next earthy, the next flirtatious. At one point she recalls her first meeting with Henry.
“We shattered the commandments on the spot,” she says with a growl of lust like the one she uses for Patsy’s in “Ab Fab.” She looks terrific in an embroidered silver tunic too.
Robert Lindsay is no slouch as Henry. His gravelly voice has an old-fashioned thespian ring to it, and he brings a commanding royal charisma to the role.
Trevor Nunn’s production moves quickly, and looks handsome among heavy curtains and Norman arches. There are worse ways to spend a winter’s night.
Deborah Warner sets her new English National Opera production of “Eugene Onegin” in the 1870s, when the work was composed. It’s a sensible decision for a story about a girl who faces social ostracism for daring to declare her passion to a man. The bustles, tight-waisted dresses and servants create a setting in which her dilemma feels true.
Warner tells the narrative well too, and it’s clear who’s in love, who’s jealous, and why. So far, so straightforward.
The details escape her grasp. She places the first act in a barn belonging to the wealthy Larin family, and this is where the girl, Tatyana, sleeps. People refer to it as “a garden,” and it seems to be directly attached to the family’s mansion. Why a solid landowning family should have a rickety old barn in their home and call it a garden is confusing, to say the least.
For Tatyana’s birthday party in Act 2, they all move indoors to a large room. For some reason, Tatyana’s mother invites all the servants to join in the dancing.
She’s supposed to be a sensible provincial lady, not a class-warrior Bolshevik. What happened to the 1870s setting?
There are plenty more details which contradict the broadly naturalistic designs, and give the feeling of a theatrical universe which is only half-convincing. Compared to the recent run of ENO duds, half is still better than nothing.
Soprano Amanda Echalaz (Tatyana) has a meaty and full voice, and her top notes ring out roundly. She’s let down by a level of caution, and sometimes characterization falters while she concentrates on hitting a tricky note. Hopefully she’ll settle as the run progresses.
Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen is a little too stolid as Onegin, the man who rejects and then desires her. He’s outsung by Toby Spence (Lensky) who is affecting in a scene in which he contemplates his own death.
Conductor Edward Gardner gives a mannered performance, full of whopping great pauses and slow phrasing. All in all, a mixed bag.
“The Lion in Winter” is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until January 28, 2012. Information: http://www.trh.co.uk or +44-845-481-1870.
“Eugene Onegin” is at English National Opera. http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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