Plots, Alliances, Betrayals
BUFFALO – Shakespeare suggested that all the world is a stage, and each of us plays a number of roles, which we have to fit together in order to survive.
Rarely is that situation more effectively demonstrated than it is in the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s present production of “The Lion in Winter,” by James Goldman.
I recently got to spend an afternoon talking with four of the actors from the production, and then watching an actual performance of the play, and it seemed to me like a perfect way to spend a winter’s day, examining our fellow humans, trying to work out a way to survive with at least a grain of dignity.
This week’s column will seek to give you a bit of the history in the play, followed by our conversations with the four Buffalo actors and ending with a review of the performance.
“The Lion in Winter” continues in the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St., Buffalo, through Feb. 8.
If we have any hope of learning from history, we need to understand that the people in history were people like you and me, trying with the tools life dealt them to survive and to make at least a dent in the world.
“The Lion in Winter” takes place in the year 1183 at Christmastime. The setting is Chinon, a castle which is now in Western France, but which was then among the lands ruled by the kings of England.
The ideas of countries and laws, such as we know today, were unknown in those times. The king in the play is Henry II. The lion has traditionally been a symbol for the King of England. Since Henry is 50-years-old, which in those days was considered extremely old, he is the Lion in the winter of his days.
His great-grandfather was William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, which in those days was roughly the northwestern quarter of what today is France. In 1066, William had conquered the island nation of England. While he valued his original possession of Normandy as being richer and roughly equal in size to England, he was only a duke in France, but he was a king in England.
While England was relatively unified in this period, France was largely divided up and various dukes and counts often had more real wealth and power than the kings of France. Technically, as a French Duke, King Henry was subject to the rule of the French king, but in fact, he had more troops and controlled more land. In the play, Henry invites the French king to Chinon. The French king is the 18-year-old Phillip II. Phillip greets Henry “Your Grace.” Henry replies, “My Lord,” as Phillip is technically his overlord.
Some years before the play begins, another French duke had become the master of approximately the southwestern quarter of what’s now France. He was called the “Duke of Aquitaine.” When he died in 1136, he had only three surviving children, and all were daughters. Today, we might expect that Eleanor, the oldest daughter, would inherit Aquitaine, but in those days, women were not allowed to inherit anything for themselves. If they inherited, their nearest male relative, usually their husband, actually inherited the property.
Obviously, every man in Europe hoped to marry Eleanor, so he could inherit a quarter of France. At 15 she married Louis VII, the king of France. Louis was a pious and deeply religious man, while his wife was more in tune with fashion and poetry and was suspected of conducting a large number of love affairs. Eventually, he took her with him on crusade, where her behavior was so scandalous the king resolved he would dissolve their marriage even if it cost him her lands. Had Eleanor and Louis had a son, the king would have had to keep his marriage intact so that his son could eventually inherit his throne, but they had only daughters. Divorce as we know it was not possible in those days. Instead, the church could proclaim that for one reason or another, the couple had never really been married. That makes all their children illegitimate.
Within days of the pronouncement of the annulment, the King of England – the 18-year-old Henry II of the play – decided a quarter of France was worth some marital distress. He married Eleanor and they became the parents of eight children. For many years, they were a wealthy and powerful couple, but Henry found it difficult to govern his wife’s territories, as the people of Aquitaine tended to follow the orders of Eleanor, rather than those of her husband.
When the couple’s children became adults, they became restive, and each of their four sons hoped to supplant their brothers and inherit their father’s giant kingdom. If it wasn’t possible to get it all, each of them was prepared to get control of one part or another of the kingdom. Eleanor was especially attached to the couple’s second son, Richard, and she maneuvered her province of Aquitaine to support him, against his father and his brothers.
Feeling betrayed by his wife, Henry confined Eleanor to Salisbury Tower, in cold, rainy England, which was completely foreign to her, having lived all her life in the familiar lands and milder climate of southern France.
When the play begins, Henry has called his wife from her prison, and his sons from their various pursuits, to spend a family Christmas with him and his mistress. The current mistress is Alais, the daughter of Eleanor’s first husband, by his next wife. She is officially engaged to Richard, but Henry has taken her for his mistress, and he plans to marry her to his youngest son, John. Alais is the sister of the French king, and both are the children of Eleanor’s first husband.
Anyone who knows the tales of Robin Hood know quite a bit about Good King Richard and Wicked Prince John already.
And so, the stage is set for plots, alliances, threats, betrayals, love affairs, failures and a very active and exciting couple of hours on the stage.
HENRY & SONS
The title role of the play is performed by Vincent O’Neill, who is the artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company. O’Neill plays the plum role of Henry II, but he laughed at the idea that an artistic director could pick plays which provided themselves with exciting roles to perform?
“Only once in my entire career did I choose a play for the company, because I wanted to play a certain role,” he told me. “I picked Peter Shafer’s ‘Amadeus,’ because I wanted so badly to play the composer Salieri. And, while we were still putting the production together, I had a heart episode and had to withdraw from the role, so I guess Divine Providence was teaching me my place.”
O’Neill reported that he has read up on the history of his role, but that he believes plays are about the conflict among people, each seeking what he believes is best for him. He said he doesn’t believe audiences come to the theater to see history acted out. “They come to see people like themselves, working with a situation which they probably haven’t made. They like to compare what they think they would do with what the people on stage do,” he said.
The Irish-born O’Neill believes that “The Lion in Winter” is one of two 20th-century plays which truly fits the definition of the word “classical,” as in the name of his company, the Irish Classical Theatre company.” “Goldman uses language with a power and an energy that calls to mind Shakespeare, although naturally he uses more modern word choices,” he said. By the way, the other 20th-century classic, according to O’Neill, is “A Man for All Seasons,” by Robert Bolt.
I asked if he had examined the Oscar-winning 1968 film of this play, in preparation for playing the lead role, and he smilingly said that he teaches acting, and one dictum which he tries to impress upon his students is that if they have a role, they should never consult a film of the script, especially if the film is considered iconic. “People would much rather see a first-rate version of Vincent O’Neill, than they would want to see a third-rate imitation of Peter O’Toole,” he said, referring to the actor who played his role in that film. He said he finds it usually impossible to completely erase another actor’s portrayal of a role from his memory, which means the other actor’s interpretations and emphasis slips into his own portrayal if he sees a film, and sometimes a different director and different actors in the other roles make the film’s portrayal inappropriate.
The actor playing Henry II believes that the king of the play is coping with many different roles, which we all have to do in life. He knows that he doesn’t have long to live. He knows that one of his sons will have to take the throne, but that he will fail and be destroyed if he isn’t both strong enough and clever enough to hold it. He can’t condemn the kingdom to an incompetent king because he loves a son so much.
“I often think of a person playing chess, where he has to think about the next move, but he also has to keep in mind what the other people will do next, and which choice he ought to make according to what they do,” he said. “Henry knows that he can’t just tell his sons to expect betrayal and have a plan in mind, when they encounter it. In many ways, the way in which he promises one of his sons the crown, then tries to pull it away from the first and offer it to the next, is his way of training them, so that they can survive when he is dead. He knows what they’re going to face.”
O’Neill did much of his training at the famed Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, and studied mime for several years with famed mime Marcel Marceau in Paris. He and his co-star in the play, artist in residence Josephine Hogan, who plays Eleanor, are the parents of two grown children and their ability to play off one another is based on a long line of experiences.
He is a fascinating man, with a seemingly endless list of experiences. I could happily sit and listen for days on end to what he’s willing to share. Instead, we’re limited to a few paragraphs.
The actors playing Henry’s sons are all adults, born and largely raised in Buffalo. Each is a professional actor, but all three have to maintain regular jobs in order to support themselves, as theater in Buffalo pays but not well.
Matt Witten plays Richard the Lionhearted, Henry and Eleanor’s oldest surviving son. He reported that he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the University of Michigan and moved to New York City, where he made a living for himself for 10 years, but found he needed to invest all his energies in just surviving in the expensive and rarefied atmosphere of Manhattan.
“I moved back to Buffalo just as the Buffalo theater scene was beginning to grow and create a sort of renaissance, so I was lucky, and I’ve been working ever since,” he said.
Witten was performing in a Buffalo play in the spring of 2013, when he was contacted by Brian Cavanagh, who is the director of “The Lion in Winter,” and offered the role of Richard.
“Of all the characters in this play, Richard is probably the best known, from all the Robin Hood films and stories, and yet his character holds the biggest surprise for the audience,” Witten said. It has been a challenge for him, so that once the audience learns the surprise and thinks back over his performance they see that the situation is true, but the secret isn’t given away until it happens.
Does he have a suggestion for anyone who wants to see the play? “Absolutely. Don’t waste a lot of time worrying about characters in a history book. This play is very funny, and the characters are all people you might know and live among all the time. Just come and enjoy it,” he said.
Playing Prince Geoffrey, Richard’s younger brother, is Todd Benzin, who grew up in Buffalo and graduated from Canisius College. Some actors have played his character as a victim. Certainly both the king and queen are neglectful of Geoffrey, and frankly cruel to him. At one point, when Henry is angry with Richard, he said, “At least I have another son. Thank God for John,”
Whereupon, the second son says, “Who shall we thank for Geoffrey? You don’t think much of me.”
And the king replies, “Much? I don’t think of you at all.”
Benzin believes that it’s wrong to think of Geoffrey as a victim, however. “The script says Geoffrey isn’t really human. He’s all ‘wheels and gears,'” his portrayer said. “But I’ve found a lot of humanity in Geoffrey. Feeling sorry for himself won’t move him ahead in life, so he has learned to use the people around him. He’d like to be king, but if that doesn’t work, he’ll be the richest and most powerful supporter of whoever does become king, though only for as long as they’re able to give him power and money. He knows he’ll never out-fight Richard, and he knows he doesn’t have his father’s love, as John does, so he sets himself up to be as successful as he’s able to make himself, in the conditions in which he lives.”
One small problem is the true fact that Benzin’s character of Geoffrey was named for his grandfather, Henry’s father, Geoffrey Plantagenet. “Eleanor likes to torment her husband by suggesting that she has cheated on him with other men. The one which seems to bother him most is her claim to have had an affair with his father. It’s kind of a challenge to make sure the audience knows that it isn’t her son, Eleanor is claiming as a lover, it’s his grandfather,” he said.
That leaves the youngest son, John. He is portrayed by Nathan Andrew Miller. While Prince John is only 16 years old, the actor is a recent graduate of Niagara University and its excellent theater department.
“In real life, John did the worst things of all the characters on stage,” Miller said. “It’s kind of fun to play a bad guy, although I learned long ago that if you just play bad, the audience hates your character and hope for him to be overcome, but they don’t invest any feelings in him beyond possibly anger. John hasn’t chosen to be weak and dishonest and spoiled. Life has made him those things, and Henry’s training program for future kings has made him those things. “
He says he tries to focus on the fact that John is only 16, and to imagine what a 16-year-old boy is likely to think about. Teens often don’t know how to take charge of a situation, so they pout and become petulant. When Henry tells Alais that he wants her to marry John, she replies that she doesn’t like John because he has pimples and smells of compost.
“When we got into the costumes and the makeup people put the pimples on my face, I began to feel the other actors reacting differently to me,” he said. “Renee Landrigan, who plays Alais, was a year ahead of me at Niagara University, and we’ve been friends for a long time, but as we began to get into character, I couldn’t help notice that she stayed as far from me on the stage as the blocking would allow. When I read about John’s history after the end of the play, I can’t help but note that he never really became a full adult. He remained impulsive and hot tempered, and he never fully trusted anyone nor deserved anyone’s trust. That’s the key to playing him.”
Whether they’re princes or rat catchers, these actors are prepared to offer you a case study in how people can manage to live their lives.
This is a fine production and I recommend it to you heartily. The basic heart of the play is all there, and well presented.
The central element of the play is that the king and queen love each other, and hate each other. This isn’t the first play to recognize that it’s very possible to love and to hate the same person.
O’Neill’s Henry is a man who loves a good scrap, which is what attracts him so much to Hogan’s Eleanor. She has bullied men all her life, and she could never love a man who allowed her to do it.
Hogan is a strong actor, and costumer designer Dixon Reynolds hasn’t done her any favors. The fabric of her costumes bears a print, which makes her seem to be wearing the dining room drapes, like Carol Burnett playing Scarlett O’Hara.
Hogan has a beautiful, round face, which isn’t enhanced by being encased in the fabric of a wimple. I know the fact that she’s locked in and imprisoned is supposed to be enhanced by her costumes, but these don’t serve her beauty.
The play is funny and full of action. Director Cavanagh has dealt with the challenge of designing a set which creates the sense of time and place, yet in which nothing is taller than waist high, because some audience members will be unable to see through anything higher than that. His mistake, I think, has been in putting dozens of little stools and lanterns and other props on the stage.
Every time the scene changes, three or four stage hands come on, in medieval costume, and gather up all the little things and then spread out dozens of new little objects. The scene changes slow, the play’s forward movement far too much.
The only weakness in the acting is in the two actors playing the French king, and his sister Alais. Adam Rath is handsome and slender, but his voice is mild and not in the least commanding. It’s important that King Phillip pose more of a threat to the English royals than he does in this production.
Landrigan speaks clearly as Alais, but she is playing a young woman whose survival will depend on her ability to attach herself to the man who will control the future. I never felt her seeking to plant a seed in the heart of any of the men on stage.
I’ve already said so many good things about the acting of the principal actors, it leaves the review seeming a bit more negative than it should be. This is a very fine production, and well worth the drive to Buffalo. I encourage you to see it if you can.