Actor’s Theatre of San Francisco presents
James Goldman’s THE LION IN WINTER

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
William Congreve.

Every moment of the play mesmerizes its audience and every actor more than carries his weight. Yet, the impact of this family drama belongs to Christian Phillips (Henry II) and Joyce Henderson (Eleanor of Aquitaine) who also directed the play. Their interaction propels the plot ,their lines are unforgettable and their characters like every unhappy couple you have ever met. You cannot doubt their frustrated rage, their desperate need for control of a world that isn’t going their way and their ache for a love once so lovely, now lost.

The play opens on Christmas Eve, 1183 and we are confronted with a family eating each other up in their quest for power. Eleanor watches her three sons fight one another for the right to become King of England, and sees her husband lie and exploit them all so he can keep his mistress (Karina Wolfe) and secure the future of his country and she says, “How from where we started did we ever reach this?”

Yet, both as husband and wife and King and Queen, Eleanor and Henry take responsibility for what they are now and realize it is they who made their children into the vicious, amoral people they have become. “We are the origins of war,” says Eleanor. “We breed war; we carry it inside us like syphilis.”

“Every single character is struggling for power, some quite skillfully,” says Henderson in her role as director. “As each member of the family plots, schemes, conspires and counter-plots, the deep-seated emotional ties between them get played out in the political arena, such that sibling rivalry and marital jealousy translate into civil war, treason and perhaps even murder….The tightrope of love, rage and desire for power is the tension that holds this story together.”

But it is far more than the plot that makes THE LION IN WINTER such a fine piece of theater. It is the pace, the lighting and, most of all, superb acting. The challenge of making these bitter and disillusioned people seem human is a huge challenge but this cast is up to it. We see their insecurities, their fears and their desperate need to be loved in their faces, in their every gesture. Henry is driven to control the future of his domain after he dies. After all, he is not eternal “I am fifty,” he says. “I am the oldest man I know.” And he goes on to say, “I’ve put together England. I am the greatest power in a thousand years.”

His son, Richard (Joe Napoli) determines to thwart him and John (James Baldock) the baby and the buffoon of the family refuses to believe that he is not the most loved, the most wanted and the most deserving even though his brothers think him worthless. “I’m father’s favorite,” he says. “That’s what counts.”

And Geoffrey (Duncan Phillips) the one son who has no hope of getting recognition from his parent, responds “If you are a prince, there is hope for every ape in Africa,”

Henry finally realizes that none of his sons are worthy to rule and when he says, “I don’t much like our children,” you see his anguish because he knows that these boys who are part of him have somehow been warped into men he does not respect. He says to Eleanor, the woman he once loved, “I hope we never die,” and she answers, “I hope so too.” Because if they die, what will happen to England?

But Eleanor’s life is a torment and Henderson makes you feel the full extent of her grief and humiliation as she watches the man she still loves, kiss Alais (Karina Wolfe) whom she had groomed for her son, Richard. Her future is in the prison Henry has made for her and he has decided to get their marriage annulled so he can marry Alais and have new sons. He says of his wife, “She is not among the things I love.” That is the stuff of humiliation and heartbreak. Henderson wraps the audience in her spell and we actually feel the torrent of emotions that are battering her but never defeating her.

This family bonfire is as pertinent today as it was in 1183. Family dynamics have not changed and we all are the poorer for it. There is no hatred portrayed on that stage that we have not seen acerbated by the demands of modern society. We know the frustration, we feel the futility, and we, too know not how to heal it. “When the story of my life is written, it will read better than it lived,” says Henry.

You will cry and you will laugh with the characters on the Actor’s Theatre stage because this production opens your eyes to what you could so easily become.

Treat yourself to what a real family Christmas can be, with all its love. hate, jealousy and manipulation. Actors Theatre's production of James Goldman's The Lion in Winter surpasses any this reviewer has yet seen on stage or screen, beautifully realized and acted with true humanity. On a scale of ten, this production well deserves a twelve.


WHERE: Actors Theatre of San Francisco
855 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA

Performances continue Wednesday-Thursdays through December 18.

TICKETS: ($26-$38.00) 415 345 1287