The old saying “you always hurt the ones you love” is steeped in truth. It’s easy to be mindlessly cruel to a stranger, but to someone you love? To someone you know well, and therefore know their soft spots, where to dig a heel when they’re at their most vulnerable? Hurting the ones we love is an art; it’s amazing we trust other people enough to let them into our lives, knowing we’re opening ourselves up to that kind of potential pain.
’The Lion in Winter’
WHERE: Berkshire Theatre Group, Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 6 East St., Stockbridge, Mass.
WHEN: Through July 13
HOW MUCH: $58-$38
MORE INFO: (413) 997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org/
James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” being performed at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage, explores the cruelty a family can inflict upon one another, knowing each other’s weaknesses and flaws as well as they do; the interesting twist is that it’s not just any family, but King Henry II, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three sons, and two members of the French royal family staying in their castle over the Christmas holidays in 1183.
Henry and Eleanor’s oldest son (Henry the Younger) has just passed away; it is now up to Henry to decide which of his three remaining sons will get the throne (and his land, and Alais, the King of France’s sister and his ward, who has been promised to marry whichever of his sons becomes king of England. Sound twisty? It is. European royalty, like the course of true love, never has run smooth.)
Enter Eleanor, who Henry has locked up for fostering rebellion against him. He has allowed her to come home for the holidays, and she’s not pleased with his choice of their sons for king. Henry is a schemer; Eleanor is the perfect match for him. They plot against each other, using their children, Alais, and the King of France as pawns in their game.
It sounds very serious – and at times, it can be. But it’s actually very funny. Imagine the worst Christmas dinner you’ve ever had with relatives, multiplied by the power of British royalty. The writing is crisp and the pacing is perfect. Not a moment is wasted, and no scene seems too long.
It’s very hard to single out individual performances in a cast that works this well together. Treat Williams’ King Henry was equal parts blowhard and intellectual; his performance was large, but never over-the-top. In a smaller role, Matthew Stucky’s Philip, King of France was a nuanced yet deep performance — a boy trying to both live up to and surpass his father, while fighting his own urges and attempting to outmaneuver people who had been playing this game long before he came on the scene.
If forced to choose a standout, however, it would have to be Jayne Atkinson in her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is equal parts Lady Macbeth and Marquise de Merteuil from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” — scheming, sexy, dangerous, but with a heart. Her reasons for being there and for everything she does are her own, until she reveals them in a heartbreakingly painful yet completely real scene to Henry, and you admire her even more, as a woman in that time who fought toe-to-toe with the men and stood as their equal.
This is a beautifully written show, with compelling performances from everyone on the stage, directed with a deft hand. If you’re debating whether to make the trip to Stockbridge in the next few weeks, please do yourself a favor and do so.