‘The Lion in Winter’ was scrumptious.
After a tumultuous year, Villanova Players Theatre Company has reignited their season of theatre with the historically based production, ‘The Lion in Winter’. Performing at the Ron Hurley Theatre in Seven Hills, the work explores the complex political maneuverings of King Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their children and their guests during the Christmas of 1183.
Premiering on Broadway in 1966, director Roslyn Johnson describes James Goldman’s play as a “modern classic”. The production was later produced for a film in both 1968 and 2003 and has seen numerous revivals both on Broadway and West End since its debut.
‘The Lion in Winter’ deals with a series of “scenes” – as they are described in the dialogue – where each character manipulates each other for their own personal political gain. Through clever dialogue, the audience is taken on a journey within the convoluted plot. The production also features some hilarious comical moments as well as extremely philosophical arguments about family, love, loyalty, duty, death and politics.
Every aspect of the atmospheric design of ‘The Lion in Winter’ aims to construct a historically accurate portrayal of the time period. Johnson creates an immersive experience through both her direction and sound design. From the moment the audience enters the theatre, the mood is set with a carefully curated playlist, which features many modern songs recreated in a medieval style.
The clever coloured lighting, also designed by Johnson, punctuates the changing moods within the play to reinforce the emotions of each of the characters. Transitions add another layer, as “servants” emerge in dim lighting to move furniture around the castle accompanied by backing tracks of medieval-style music. This is particularly effective as the crew form part of the world of the story and does not break the play’s illusion.
Also designed by Johnson, the set features a series of arches with hanging tapestries embellished with the symbol of a lion which traditionally represents courage. The details are effective in establishing the time period and cements the action within a palace. Functionally, the design allows for interesting directorial choices, taking advantage of the arches and the tapestries. Pieces easily moved to reveal a historically accurate bed featuring velvet curtains, a dungeon with wine kegs and another bed with fur covers. The simplicity of the overall design allows for small adjustments, which in turn, create significant changes on stage, transporting the audience through the different spaces as the play progresses.
Costumes by Leo Bradley, Robert Spence and Desley Nichols are spectacular. They create another layer of authenticity to the historical context of the work. Some highlights include Alais’s deep green velvet gown, the long fur cloaks, Eleanor’s historically accurate headdress and the beautifully crafted crowns which are both eye-catching and scrumptious.
As a director, it is clear that Johnson has an immense passion for this production. In her notes, she explains that she has long loved ‘The Lion in Winter’ and that it was on her director’s bucket list. As such, the play dances between actors on stage and flows as they emote the complex text. Every blocking choice is clear, intentional and serves the motivation of the characters. The almost constant movement, keeps audience members engaged even through long, heavy and complicated dialogue.
‘The Lion in Winter’ features a stunning cast of community performers that do the intense narrative justice. In the leading roles of Henry and Eleanor, Brent Schon and Fiona Kennedy are spectacular. The audience both loves and hates them simultaneously. Their chemistry is undeniable and holds attention as they manipulate and cajole one another.
Casting choices for Henry’s three sons are spot on. Nikolai Stewart as the petulant John shows skilful acting that creates some of the best comical moments of the show. Gabriel King perfectly captures Geoffrey’s cunning and conniving side through his strong performance and wonderful facial expressions that show a cheeky mischievousness. Finally, Michael McNish is a serious and brooding Richard with poise and precision. In particular, McNish delivers depth to a character that is difficult to crack.
In the role of Alais, Lillian Dowdell is equally naive as she is deadly. Although her role as the mistress of Henry appears challenging for a young actress, Dowdell handles it with ease and accomplishes it well. Last but not least, Oscar Kennedy-Smith portrays a charming and suave Philip through his eloquent delivery of dialogue.
Overall, the acting in this production is of an extremely high standard and all of the performers are to be commended for tackling such a long and dialogue-heavy show. Villanova Players Theatre Company has presented a production above and beyond excellent for community theatre.
‘The Lion in Winter’ is a fantastic revival of a modern classic that features beautiful, historically accurate costumes, effective set design and sound design, and a highly-skilled cast. If you are passionate about British history and enjoy philosophical arguments, this is a show that should not miss.
‘The Lion in Winter’ performs until Sunday, 22 November 2020 at The Ron Hurley Theatre, Seven Hills. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Villanova Players Theatre Company’s website.