The Lion in Winter

published: Fri, 6-Feb-2004   |   updated: Wed, 4-Jan-2017

Richard The Lionheart in The Lion in Winter by James Goldman for Upstart Performing Ensemble at the Miramont Castle in Manitou Springs. Directed by Ricky Vila-Roger. March 1997.

A very interesting production this one. Tony Babin (the producer and artistic director and prime mover for Upstart) had managed to persuade the Miramont Castle to let us put on The Lion in Winter, which of course takes place in a castle, Chinon in France. And it was directed by my friend Ricky who did a great job. He tells me he likes directing me, because he can get me to extend myself and I seem to get it first time and then he can concentrate on the other actors.

We had what seemed to be essentially a hallway in the Castle for our auditorium. Long, but narrow. I think we could get five seats across it, with an aisle to one side. The stage was miniscule. Movement was limited, and every move had to count. I made Richard menacing and still, and the stillness made him all the more menacing: every move was as if he wanted to attack.

Apart from performing in the Castle, the main thing I remember about this production was one performance in particular. In the play, Richard makes a move on Philip (the play is famous for making Richard gay) at the end of one of the scenes. He's trying to gain advantage over everyone else -- Philip is the King of France -- the whole play is about the shenanigans as they all try to gain advantage and curry favor with Henry II. So Richard tries to seduce Philip. The way Ricky had staged it was me approaching Evan, stroking his cheek, and as our heads came together for a kiss, the lights would artfully dim and blackout. (That in essence was all that Evan would agree to: after all, he was still only at high school at the time.)

No problem, except for this one show. There at the back was a young cowboy (boots, stetson, you get the picture) who was obviously taking this rather ravishing young beauty out on a date. What better than an evening at the theatre? Hey, babe, look I'm in touch with my artistic side; I'm not just a hick. Except, as Evan and I got closer for our non-kiss, and I let my stance suggest conquest, I heard this cowboy say out loud, "Oh God, they're going to kiss; that's disgusting, I can't watch." Thank heavens the lights went out, because I was almost ready to break character and look at him in amazement.

I also wrote the "historical perspective" section in the programme, which involved a bit of research and then writing a mini-essay to help the audience understand the context to the play and what happened afterwards. (By the way, for those who have the actual programme, the spelling errors there had nothing to do with me. I certainly would not have written Thomas à Bucket, for heaven's sake.)

What happened before the events of the play?

In 1183, Henry must have been feeling tired. He had come to the throne 29 years earlier at a time of some vicious civil wars in England. His predecessor, Stephen, had made one impressive action in his life - seizing the throne at Henry I's death from Henry's daughter Matilda (Henry II's mother) - and then frittered away this advantage over the next 19 years by general weakness in dealing with his barons. At the age of 15, Henry Plantagenet started to wage war on Stephen and finally vanquished him in 1153, forcing Stephen to sign a treaty to name him as the rightful heir to the Crown. One year later, aged 21, Henry was King. Over the first few years of his rule, Henry vanquished Stephen's troublesome warring barons, one by one, forcing them to accept him as King. He'd also crossed the Church and the Papacy, firstly by crowning his son Henry to try to secure the succession, then with an attempt to make the Crown the highest court in the land (resulting in Thomas à Becket's murder) and failed both times. Through a brilliantly devised marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (recently divorced from a weak monkish Louis VII of France through a slightly spurious consanguinity excuse), he managed to secure the entire western half of France, leaving Louis' son Philip II with much reduced power and territory. He owned, or had authority over, England, Scotland, Wales and western France; the greatest amount of land since Charlemagne. To further consolidate his power over his barons, he instituted some legal reform: setting up Crown Courts with impartial judges and a jury. Henry's subjects could ask for a trial in the Crown Court and any decision was binding over the subject's feudal lord. Then, half way through his reign, from 1173 onwards, there were various rebellions against him by his sons and Eleanor (with help from Philip). Eleanor sided with her sons because of Henry's unfaithfulness, and finally forced him to imprison her.

And then in the summer of 1183, his desired successor, his favored and favorite son Henry, died.

And what happened after the events of the play?

Henry II survived as King until, worn down by constant rebellion from Richard and Eleanor, he died at Chinon in 1189.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was released by Henry in 1185. She lived until the ripe old age of 84 (there is some doubt about her date of birth), dying in 1204. She was involved with her sons, both for and against, for the rest of her life. She became Richard's regent whilst he was in the Crusades. She foiled John's attempt to gain the throne (with the help of the ubiquitous Philip II of France) whilst Richard was held prisoner.

Richard (known as "The Lionheart") succeeded his father as Richard I, and was well loved by his subjects. He refused to marry Alais, preferring to marry Berengaria of Navarre instead in 1191. On accession to the throne, he was immediately persuaded by the Pope to go and rescue Jerusalem from the sultan Saladin in the Third Crusade. Despite his ruthlessness (he executed 2,700 Muslim prisoners of war after capturing Acre), he failed to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims and instead had to leave with a treaty allowing Christian pilgrims access to the city. On the way home to England he was captured by Leopold IV of Austria and was only released in 1194 after payment of a large ransom that almost bankrupted England. He spent the next 5 years in various campaigns against Philip II in defense of his various lands in France. He was fatally wounded in an insignificant skirmish and died in 1199.

Geoffery died in 1186, before Henry II did, and his son Arthur succeeded him as Duke of Brittany. Arthur was murdered by John in 1203, as punishment for siding with Philip II against England and for kidnapping Eleanor.

John was given many titles by Richard when Richard came to power in thanks for aiding his various rebellions against Henry. John was a mad, tyrannical, nasty man, the embodiment of absolute power corrupting absolutely. (One of his counties in England was Nottinghamshire, and his rule over that county led to the legend of Robin Hood.) Whilst Richard was on the Crusades, he tried to seize the throne, only to be repulsed by Eleanor. Nevertheless, Richard forgave him on his return from captivity. On Richard's death, John became King and through his ineptness at defense managed to lose all of the lands in France to Philip II. When he denied the Pope's desired successor to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was excommunicated by the Pope. Philip was persuaded by the Pope to invade, John lost his nerve and gave England away to the Pope in return for forgiveness (he got the land back a couple of years later). Through his tyrannical reign and various abuses of power, his barons finally rebelled and forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. The importance of this document is that it stated that the King was subject to the law, and was not above it. John died two years later.


Henry IITony Babin
AlaisMarisa Danielle Hébert
JohnPreston Dickey
GeoffreyChristian Garcia
Richard the LionheartJulian Bucknall
EleanorAshley Crockett
PhilipEvan Faber

Review from the Gazette Telegraph

'Lion' roars with emotional power

Mark Arnest

Before "Melrose Place" - even before "Dallas" - there was the court of King Henry II. "The Lion in Winter" explores the rivetingly detestable characters surrounding what was then the greatest power in Europe, and the production by Upstart Performing Ensemble captures the story's emotional intricacy, if not its grandeur.

It's Christmas, 1183. Henry is aging, and his eldest son, whom he was priming to take over the throne, has died, setting off a power struggle among his three surviving sons. Henry wants John to succeed him, but worries that he lacks Richard's military prowess or Geoffrey's cunning. Meanwhile, his wife, Eleanor, is a tad bitter over being held prisoner in her castle while Henry cavorts with his mistress Alais, a French princess. So Eleanor schemes to place Richard on the throne. And France's young King Philip - Richard's former lover - is becoming a power to be reckoned with.

Oh, and to give romance its due, Henry's preparing to have his beloved Alais marry one of his sons. He can't seem to decide which one.

If you go to plays to see characters you'll like, James Goldman's drama isn't for you. In this conflict between love and power, power pitches a shutout. But the characters are sharply drawn, and the engrossing, sometimes humorous story moves convincingly to a strange, warm ending - in which Goldman seems to say, "Sure, these people are awful, but they're a family."

The play's weaknesses are concentrated in Act I. It's too long, especially when you're sitting in folding chairs (director Ricardo Vila-Roger might consider another short intermission), and the scheming is so convoluted that now and then you wonder exactly who's betraying whom.

As Henry, Tony Babin is a sensitive actor, but lacks the larger-than- life quality this character requires. He's overshadowed by the regal Ashley Crockett as the scheming Eleanor of Aquitaine. (All these characters dramatize their lives, but no one so much as Eleanor, who's continually grabbing a knife and trying to kill herself.)

Their kids are a living advertisement for celibacy. Young Preston Dickey is wonderfully snotty as John, the youngest son, who's "covered with pimples and smells of compost." You want to strangle him the moment he enters. Julian Bucknall radiates barely suppressed rage as Richard, and Christian Garcia gives an exceptionally oily portrayal of Geoffrey, who hopes to accomplish with guile what he can't accomplish with strength.

Marisa Danielle Hébert is winsome as Alais (though even this character isn't above manipulating what power she has). Evan Faber plays Philip close to the vest. He's willing to deal with anyone, but his ambition is always clear - to reclaim the French lands occupied by the English.

The setting in Miramont Castle kind of works, and kind of doesn't. The castle atmosphere is appropriate, but the tiny space literally cramps the style. It's hard to act regal when you're basically stuck in a hallway, and it allows for only a minimal set. What visual atmosphere there is comes mainly from A. Lynne Bell's excellent costumes (especially Eleanor's stunning gown).

(c) Gazette Telegraph 1997