The Lion In Winter; the Circle Players Impress

This is the first production by the Circle Players that I have seen. They are Nashville’s oldest all-volunteer performing arts organization, and it’s clear by the quality of their production how they’ve made it to celebrate 74 seasons. I saw their final performance of The Lion in Winter on January 28th (illness and snow had shut down my two previous attempts to attend), and that’s a real misfortune, because I want to recommend the show highly to you. Everything impressed me: the props, costumes, stage design, the acting, and the play itself.

The Lion in Winter was originally written as a Broadway play in 1966 by James Goldman (whose younger brother William wrote The Princess Bride) and was adapted into the 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, which won three Oscars. The hit Fox show Empire is explicitly based on this play, which is historical fiction set at Christmas, 1183, at the court of King Henry II. 

Since most of us Americans don’t know the early Plantagenets off the top of our head, here’s some context: Henry II ruled all of England and half of France, having taken the throne of England less than 100 years after Normandy had conquered it. Infamously, after his former friend Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave him much trouble, Henry II uttered the famously hasty line, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four of his knights heard this, took it as a command, and murdered Becket at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. Even more familiar to us Americans, Robin Hood was supposedly alive around this time as well; Prince John and Richard the Lionheart are present in this play, being Henry II’s sons.

“Angevin Empire” refers to the Plantagenet realm 1100’s-1200’s

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife, was the owner of a massive region in present-day France. Besides being born one of the wealthiest women in Europe, at 15 she married the King of France, Louis VII. The unhappy marriage ended in annulment on a technicality, and eight weeks later, she married Henry II. In the 1170’s, she assisted her eldest son Henry in his rebellion against her husband, which was unsuccessful and resulted in her imprisonment and her son’s death from illness during the campaign. 

Enough context and backstory. The play is set ten years after Henry had imprisoned his wife. He is permitting her to join him and their remaining sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John for Christmas. King Phillip II of France, and Henry’s mistress Alais join them as well. Over the course of several days, we see this family scheme, all vying for power, for revenge, for some sort of satisfaction to fill the loveless void in each of them. Henry and Eleanor aim to have different sons succeed him on the throne. His aim is to have a clear successor (the youngest, John) so that the kingdom avoids civil war after he dies. Her aim is to have her favorite son (Richard, the oldest living son) take the throne, and, if she can’t matter to Henry as his wife, she’ll matter to him by defeating him. Plots are hatched and dashed, all with true wit. There are so many clever lines that I can’t pick just one: I’d end up copy-pasting the entire play into this review.

I spend a lot of time here on the content of the play, not to give a book-report summary sort of review, but to emphasize how well-chosen and well-executed this play was. The Circle Players took a play that is full of complex, sustained dialogue calling for a range of acting ability, and they absolutely nailed it. 

Let’s start with the stage design: At the two edges of the Looby Theater’s stage stood white two-foot-tall chess pieces, stark against the dark walls. A queen stood with three pawns on one side, a king with three pawns on the other. There couldn’t be a simpler or more elegant way to encapsulate the play visually, before the curtain was even raised. The stage itself had excellent sets: stone walls with spartan but varied furniture, the occasional tapestry or cushioned seat. It put me in mind of Ivanhoe, whose story is set around this time period: “of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed.” The set was shifted quickly and frequently, which was good; plays that all take place in one room can make you wonder why everyone goes to the living room for private conversations.

The props, done by Clint Randolph, were quality, with the best swords and daggers I’ve seen on stage. At one point a character dropped a dagger onto the floor, and it fell with a satisfying heavy metal clang. A lovely large wooden chess board featured in a scene, and people frequently drank from goblets or tankards, pouring from silver jugs or scooping from a hot cauldron. Basically, I wanted to touch everything.

In fabulous costume: Jeffrey Luksik as Geoffrey, Matt Stapleton as Philip, photo by Hannah Wacholtz

The costumes were well-fitted, distinctive, and quality. I don’t know my fabrics, but these were quality. I am not familiar with 12th century European fashion, but Grace Montgomery’s costumes looked authentic, with varied fabrics, textures, colors, and each character’s garb was distinctive, and matched their character.

The music played as an overture was so good I had to look it up, and yes, it was from the 1968 film adaptation: Main Title/The Lion In Winter. It will make you want to pillage, plunder, and defy the pope. The incidental music occurred only during scene changes and reminded me of the music of the strategy video game Age of Empires II.

I have only praise for the cast. Kay Ayers was captivating as Eleanor of Aquitaine, her controlled vindictive sarcasm and pitiful vulnerability had authenticity and humor, and she shifted between the two smoothly, revealing her character’s snakelike nature. The line between her truth and her lies were difficult to discern, and she made a formidable opponent. Jack E Chambers was charming and nuanced as Henry II, an interesting character: a hearty but smug, who hid his scheming mind behind false frankness and gusto. Elizabeth Burrow played Alais Capet, Henry’s ward and mistress, and gave her a tragic simplicity: out of the seven characters in the play, she was the only one whose goal is not power, but simply to live and be loved. Her half-brother, King Philip of France, was played by Matt Stapleton with smug bitterness, his carefree arrogance hiding his obsessive vindictiveness. The sons were troubled pawns in the battle between their parents. Sawyer Latham embodied Richard Lionheart, Jeffrey Luksik exuded clever, resentful insignificance, and Ezra High played a petulant, childish John.

Jack E. Chambers as Henry II, Kay Ayers as Eleanor, photo by Hannah Wacholtz

Clay Hillwig directed a fantastic production, each individual component coming together to create an amusing and moving experience. The Circle Player’s run of The Lion in Winter is over, but their season isn’t: their next production will be The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas March 15-31. 

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