On a sweltering day, in a beachy town, a small congregation of faithful theatre-goers was treated to gorgeous performance of The Lion in Winter. Rounding out this season at the Watermark, the well-known work by James Goldman has been given a delectable treatment by director Duncan McIntosh to suit its summer home.
We are voyeurs to an imagined Christmas gathering in eleven-teen-eighty three, based on the real life King Henry II of England, and his family. The players in the game and the rules were real, though the rich dialogue and relentless mental maneuvering is fabricated or, at least, unconfirmed. It’s an engrossing imagined history.
A stylishly staged production, clever lighting and blocking exaggerate and telegraph each abstract strategy move. The sons often find themselves relegated to corners, vying for the ear of the king or queen. In low light and moody shadow, you could easily be listening in from the next room of the castle.
I implore you to not be intimidated by the period setting or the complicated family politics. It all goes down so deceptively smooth and with a most wicked wit. Though claims of respect are occasionally spouted out of the corners of their mouths, they are a hilariously hateful bunch.
And this cold-hearted clan could be your reason for falling in love with theatre.
John Dartt portrays King Henry, and he is magnificent. Henry is concerned about his legacy, to be sure, but his scheming almost seems off-the-cuff, just to prove he still has the chops to out-think those around him.
His queen, Eleanor, is a bit more calculating. Though she’s likely been stewing on these moves for the past 10 years while she’s been imprisoned by Henry.
Theirs is a complicated relationship. Gracie Finley plays Eleanor with frigid poise. Just when she’s about to garner some sympathy, here come daggers from her eyes and a stinging from her tongue.
Oldest surviving son, Richard, played by Robert Tsonos, is brave and stoic, though not completely immune to the emotional toying of his mother. Middle child, Geoffrey, is shrewd and confident. Portrayed by Jonathan Widdifield, he seems in many ways the most capable, though he perhaps carries the chip of an uncoddled childhood most on his shoulder. Youngest son, John, played by Alex Furber, is a bit dim and brattish and seems least kinglike. But Henry dangles the inheritance in front of him more than any of the others.
All the while, Alais, who Henry has chosen as his next true love, might be trying to pull strings as well. Alais, played by Leah Pritchard, it should be noted was officially Richard’s betrothed.
Richard, however, might have a thing with someone else in this messy web. It was a simpler time. Brian Bisson, who plays the newly kinged Philip of France, and Alais’ brother, is a bit intimidated by Henry, though he refuses to be taken lightly.
The costuming is fun and quite brilliant, really.
Just as the script takes many historical liberties for the sake of the art, the outfits are scavenged and pieced together from contemporary elements to create a stunning, slightly fanciful, early medieval look. Leathers and knits, blacks and reds. Scott Penner is the man behind the look.
As this is a fictitious imagining of a family gathering, it allows for such wonderfully playful barbs and twisted olive branches, alliances and deceit. The script, the set, and the captivating performances by every single company member make this a remarkable jewel on the P.E.I. theatrescape this year. I gather one isn’t supposed to pick favourites among children, but if I did ...
At a glance:
If you go
What: The Lion in Winter
Where: Watermark Theatre in North Rustico
When: Until Aug. 30
Lennie MacPherson, a Charlottetown-based writer, actor and musician, writes theatre reviews for The Guardian during the summer months. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.