It’s a story as old or older as any to be found in the Old Testament: a dysfunctional family; a husband and wife at each other’s throats; adult children twitching with ambition and sibling rivalry and, of course, a pearl of inestimable price:
• The family is the Plantagenets, monarchs of England but more French than English in their bloodlines. They rule most of the British Isles and a wide swath of France in the 12th Century from their castle in Chinon, some 150 miles south and west of Paris.
• The husband and wife are King Henry II (Ian Buchanan) and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Mariette Hartley), on friendly enough terms in the early years of their marriage to produce eight children but now, in middle age, have come to a stalemate of sorts – if alternating cycles of anger, tenderness, cruelty, affection and revenge can be called a “stalemate.”
• Their three surviving sons (of four born) are Richard (Brendan Ford), Geoffrey (Paul Turbiak) and John (Doug Plaut).
• The pearl is the English crown then adorning the head with great confidence of their father.
Royal boys being spoiled boys — vain, self-aggrandizing — each is convinced that he deserves to be anointed here and now as The One, the heir. Not that Henry is about to stumble into an open grave — at age 50, he is still is vigorous, powerful and lusty as his very young, very pretty mistress, Alais (Justine Hartley), can attest.
This much is generally regarded as historically true. Playwright James Goldman invents a family Christmas gathering at Chinon so that Henry, Eleanor, the three sons, Alais — and a late addition, the young French king, Philip II (Paul David Story) — don’t have far to travel to savage one another.
And savage they do.
Richard has anger management issues, Geoffrey is a venomous snake and John is a goofy adolescent, each only all too willing to defame his brothers to advance himself. It’s easy to imagine them playing tag with that wonderful medieval weapon, the flail – a spiked iron ball attached by a flexible chain to a wooden handle: Wham! You’re it!
Small wonder, that Eleanor says to Henry at one point, “I have a confession. I don’t much like our children.” But she does seem fond of Richard, just as the king inclines to John. Geoffrey justly feels neglected, unwanted.
Chinon Castle is a cold, unloving place. Buchanan convincingly portrays Henry’s bullying, in-your-face personality, calculated to keep everyone (even the sweet Alais) at arm’s length — actually, arm’s length plus an additional 30 inches of a cold, steel sword — for, as he puts it, “I’ve snapped and plotted all my life. There’s no other way to be a king, alive, and 50 all at the same time.”
Mariette Hartley’s Eleanor is weary (she’s been under castle arrest in England for her role in a family plot to do away with Henry some 10 years earlier) and wistfully wicked. When she tells Henry she has always adored him and still does, he scoffs: “Of all the lies you’ve told, that is the most terrible.”
With a smile so faint as to make Mona Lisa seem, in comparison, to be saying “ahhhhh” for a doctor looking down her throat, Eleanor wanly adds: “I know — that’s why I saved it up until now.”
There’s little physical comfort in a home built of stones and even less emotional comfort in a medieval castle where a family is at war with itself. But for all its grim content, there are occasional funny one-liners that pierce the gloom like shafts of sunlight through a heavy canopy of clouds.
Director Stephanie Vlahos, an opera singer with acting chops, deftly weaves the talents of a skilled cast into a seamless performance. Scenic designer David Potts’ set artfully conveys the hard, cold world of Chinon, and costume designer Kate Bergh dresses the players in an appropriately gloomy style.