One World Actors Centre’s fringe production of James Goldman’s historical black comedy
Set in the Court of Henry the 2nd during Christmas, the story revolves around the schemes and counter schemes of the dysfunctional monarchy, including Henry’s formerly imprisoned Queen, his mistress, the King of France and his three ne’er-do-well sons each looking to replace him. The promotional material for the show states that this production moves the action from 1183 when the play is set to 1966, restyling Henry as a London gang lord. While modernising or resetting plays is common for classics like Shakespeare or Greek tragedy here it comes off as largely superfluous. Even if specific dates have been omitted from the script the characters still talk and act as if they were part of the monarchy and integral parts of the plot, such as the threat of the Pope annulling a marriage, rely on the play being set in the Medieval period. Indeed without the promotional material and the inclusion of a gun at one point it would difficult to tell there was ever any intention of moving the setting at all.
Issues like this are of course forgivable should the performance be sufficiently compelling, but here we once again run into problems. Taking what is normally a two hour play with an interval and compressing it into a fringe slot is always going to cause problems, making the entire production feel rushed. The plot zooms ahead at breakneck speed without giving the audience any chance to pause, catch their breath and get to know the characters. Indeed it is clear where cuts have been made, as important revelations and relationships feel rushed over. Goldman’s wonderfully witty and at times painfully bittersweet script loses so much of its charm and appeal when cut down like this; it makes you wonder why the company choose a play so unsuited for an hour slot in the first place.
Making matter worse are the problems that arise from the actors. While most show a good grasp of their characters’ motivations and exhibit a good presence on stage there are persistent problems with lines being flubbed, actors talking over one another and stammering; one or two such errors can be overlooked, but consistent flubs by the majority of the cast give the impression that the production is under-rehearsed.
This is not to say the show does not have its moments: in the second half the pace begins to slow and we are given a chance to see the characters interacting with each other naturally. Here Goldman’s script comes alive and the show becomes immensely more enjoyable, but its current state The Lion in Winter is not a show that I can recommend. With more rehearsal and a longer running time the show might shine, but as it is, this is one to miss.