The Lion in Winter
(Hilltop Theatre – Pentyrch)
It’s been a while since I reviewed something theatrical on here, mainly because I haven’t been to see much of late, but this performance by the Hilltop Theatre Company seemed well worth a write-up.
First off, I’ve loved the Peter O’Toole & Katharine Hepburn film of this play for many many years, so much so that when the Patrick Stewart & Glenn Close version came out I judged it rather harshly; not because it was a bad film, but simply because it wasn’t the original. That meant this performance had a great deal to live up to, and while you can never fairly compare a live stage performance to a screen one, nonetheless it was a high bar for this company to jump. I have to say, they cleared it beautifully.
As in any version, the performance was dominated by the mercurial Henry and Eleanor, providing the perfect extreme example of what a separated couple can become. Something I’ve always found clever about this play is that while it is ostensibly about a power struggle in twelfth century Europe (a period of history that I love btw), the core of it is about a dysfunctional married couple, and by extension, the children who’ve been raised in this environment. Both Henry and Eleanor performed this brilliantly, resisting the urge to be carbon copies of O’Toole and Hepburn and instead channelling just a little of that performance into their own. The result was very satisfying. (and I’m glad that they shied away from Henry’s ‘little boys’ line. Authentic or not, in a modern production it’s a recipe for discomfort)
The performance of the three brothers was also impressive, but with their dialogue being almost a secondary consideration. What struck me more was the consistent way in which they moved, with Richard’s movements being full of confidence and drive, Geoffrey’s stiff and uncomfortable, and John’s loose-limbed and child-like. It really helped to capture the essence of the characters. The same can be said of Philip, who managed to be languid and assured for the majority, turning to sudden bursts of movement and strong words when he realises he might be good at this game, but not nearly as good as Henry (yet…).
As for Alys I was very pleased, particularly because they included a scene which (I believe) is absent from the film versions. Before I’d always thought that she was a bit wasted in the story, being ‘the only pawn’ in the game. The scene with Philip not only gave us an extra dimension by showing her relationship with her brother, but also showed us that she has ‘learned more from Eleanor than she knows’. This was performed very well, with Alys managing to appear both clever enough to play the game, and innocent enough that she wishes she didn’t have to.
The closest thing to a negative for me was the swords being worn by the male characters. As something of a martial arts and historical weapons geek, I couldn’t help comparing the props with the swords I have at home, and they looked fairly unimpressive by comparison. That said, if the worst you can say about a performance is that a couple of the props were bad, that’s still a sign of a pretty good play!
Overall the play maintained a fine mix of tension and empathy throughout, and even as a man who knows the story well, this kept my interest right to the end. I don’t tend to give star ratings for plays (much too vulgar!), so instead I’ll just say this was a great performance; if it comes around again, I’ll be going to it and will recommend to others.