Ann Arbor Civic Theatre to present 'Lion in Winter' this spring
Photo by Tom Steppe
Indeed, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine has endured 10 years of confinement in another castle, after leading failed uprisings against her husband Henry II by allying herself with other countries, and sometimes her oldest, favorite, war hero son, Richard; Henry wants his youngest son, spoiled favorite John, to rule, but sly middle son Geoffrey hopes to make his case for the throne, too.
So things are a little tense.
“We’re playing it more like an annual ritual, where every year, they all get together and play these same sorts of games to decide who will come out on top as the next king of England,” said director Thom Johnson.Of course, many are first introduced to the story by way of the Oscar-winning 1968 film adaptation, starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, which replicated the play “almost line for line,” Johnson said.
And while based on real people from history, the story is a fiction.
“A few factors are set up so that it’s plausible and possible, but in reality, it probably never took place as it’s depicted,” said Johnson. “Certainly there were those kind of stresses and plots and intrigue going on with Henry’s sons growing up as they did, with so much focus on finding out which heir would be the one to keep the kingdom intact.”
One of the inherent challenges of presenting a period piece concerns the design elements (costumes, set, etc.), but Johnson has an ace up his sleeve.
“Fortunately our costumer, Nan Wirth, is a scholar of that period,” said Johnson. “It’s something she really enjoys - not just for this show, but forever. It’s one of her passions, that time period, so our costumes are going to be very authentic. And the stage setting will be fairly sparse. I want as much open space as possible for the actors, to give them room to work.”
Yet despite these markers of a time long past, Johnson notes that part of the play’s appeal is its accessibility.
“It’s very contemporary in its language, even though about people in the 12th century,” said Johnson. “ You can relate to it more easily than something that’s in old English or performed as if Shakespeare wrote it. And there’s a lot of plot intrigue, too. You never know who on top.”
As for why Johnson proposed the show, he explained, “I’ve always wanted to be in the show. The roles of king and queen are tremendous roles, with lots of witty banter. But nobody proposed it, and then I got too old to play the part, so I just thought, ‘Somebody still needs to do it.’”
So Johnson is ruling from the wings; but given what we see of the succession process in "Lion," perhaps that’s the better way to go.