Review: 'The Lion in Winter'

Ben Miles

James Goldman’s stage play, “The Lion in Winter,” has had many an incarnation since it came under the bright lights of Broadway in 1966. That production won a Tony Award for Rosemary Harris, who portrayed Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Robert Preston’s King Henry II of England.

It became an acclaimed motion picture in 1968, starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn as Henry and Eleanor, winning a Best Actress Oscar for Hepburn. And though “Lion” has had many a stage revival since its debut – notably there was one on Broadway in 1999, with Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing in the royal roles – it was also resurrected as a 2003 made-for-television movie with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in the leading roles.

Now the venerable Laguna Playhouse, in Laguna Beach, is producing “Lion” with Gregory Harrison (bright with biting humor) and Frances Fisher (emotionally nuanced with clockwork timing) trying on for size the crowns of Henry and Eleanor.

The fit is a loose one – “Lion” can be a long and at times ambling script – nevertheless, the sheen of the royal wear remains lustrous  as these 12th century monarchs battle with word-play, wry wisdom, and cut-to-the-bone wit. At one point Eleanor, who at this juncture has been imprisoned by Henry for the past decade, says to the King, “I don’t much like our children.” When one of the princes pulls a knife on another of the would-be kings, Eleanor declares, “It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!”

With princely machinations, fraternal rivalries, and commentary the playwright clearly meant to address the social tumult of the 1960s. At one point Queen Eleanor informs her family, “Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers.”

Under Sheldon Epps’ layered direction, with regal production values (scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, costuming by David Kay Mickelsen,  lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, sound design by Kate Wecker and wig designs by Anthony Gagliardi), and an able cast, “Lion” purrs enough to endear us to the dramatic conceit, as when the hygienically challenged Prince John (played with off-beat charm by Spencer Curnutt) says this to a rival, “You stink. You’re a stinker and you stink.” But it also roars and growls, such as when Henry declares, “Who’s to say it’s monstrous? I’m the king. I call it just. Therefore, I, Henry... do sentence you to death. Done this Christmas Day in Chinon in God’s year 1183.”

Though the King and the Queen have different ideas about which of their conniving offspring should ascend to the throne – bellicose but brave Richard (Burt Grinstead excelling as an angry usurper); Geoffrey, the cerebral conniver (played with cool calculation by Ian Littleworth); or ne’er-do-well John – there’s no doubt that someone will rule but what they will rule is a matter of debate between the young King Philip of France (a deceptively soft-spoken characterization by Taubert Nadalini) and the English royals. To complicate matters, King Philip’s sister, Alais (played with pristine authenticity by Chelsea Kurtz), is King Henry’s mistress but also unwillingly betrothed to Prince Richard.

At the end of this two and-a-half hour staging, Henry says, “I hope we never die.” Eleanor replies, “So do I.” To which Henry poses this rejoinder, “Do you think there’s any chance of it?” That’s a surprisingly happy denouement to this decidedly medieval tale. Still, it underscores the humor that is as much a part of “The Lion in Winter” as the drama.

“The Lion in Winter” continues through Nov. 24 at The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Evening performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and at 5:30 p.m. on Sundays. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on  Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays. For reservations, call (949) 497-2787. For online ticketing and further information, visit


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