King Lear thought HE had ungrateful children. At least among his three daughters, one of them (Cordelia) was loving and devoted. No such luck in the case of King Henry II, whose three sons elevate selfishness, childishness and nastiness to the level of high art.
North Coast Rep’s 30th-anniversary production of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter (first staged in the NCR’s inaugural season in 1982) is a bit of high art itself. It’s a lyrical historical drama with generous dollops of biting wit and glib commentary, applicable well beyond the 12th-century setting, about power, ambition and family. To a more visceral degree, the war of words and gesticulations between explosive Henry (Mark Pinter) and brainy Eleanor (Kandis Chappell) is nearly as flammable as George and Martha’s in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but with Christmas wine instead of booze. Chappell and the stentorian-voiced Pinter are well-matched combatants in this production directed by Andrew Barnicle, and the embers of Eleanor and Henry’s expiring love flicker just believably enough from beginning to satisfying end.
The ostensibly chief conflict of The Lion in Winter is how uneasy lies the head of Henry, which wears the crown of England. That crown is coveted by sons Richard (Richard Baird, brooding), Geoffrey (Jason Maddy, scheming) and John (Kyle Roche, tantruming). Then there’s Henry’s young mistress (Alexandra Grossi) and the matter of his remaining spousal ties to Eleanor, whom he has imprisoned. It’s all very scratched and tangled in a barb wire heap of envy, resentment, sibling rivalry and even oedipal complexity. You may need a scorecard to keep track of all the in-castle machinations, so it’s best to savor The Lion in Winter for its athletic language, for Pinter’s rafters-rattling rants and for the three sons’ one-note but entertaining demeanors.
Scenic designer Marty Burnett contributes a cold but regal set, and the chanting musical interludes further the illusion of a troubled Christmastime in the High Middle Ages.
Freud would have had a field day in Henry II’s household. Pity he was born seven centuries too late.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.