Backstage with ‘The Lion In Winter’

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(Host) History intersects with family drama in James Goldman’s play, The Lion In Winter.

Not only family drama, but royal drama is involved in this production.

Johnson State College is bringing the play to life and VPR’s Neal Charnoff goes Backstage.

(Charnoff) The Lion in Winter is set on Christmas Day in 12th-century France. The aging King of England, Henry the Second, summons his three sons to the family palace. Henry must decide which of the three will inherit the throne. Joining this medieval reunion is Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitane, whom he has kept imprisoned for more than a decade.

It seems that everyone has their own agenda, and the day is filled with manipulation and treachery, Henry eventually throws the whole brood in jail, and makes plans to skip town with his mistress, the Princess of France.

In this scene, Henry, played by Russ Longtin of Johnson, spars with his eldest son Richard, played by Joe Hannon of Levittown, Pennsylvania.

(Richard) “You’re getting old. One day you have me once to often.”
(Henry) “When? I’m fifty now. My god, boy, I’m the oldest man I know. I’ve got a decade on the pope. What’s it to be, the broadswords when I’m eighty-five?”
(Richard) “I am not a second son, not now. Your Henry’s in vault you know.”
(Henry) “I know. I’ve seen him in there.”
(Richard) “I will have the crown.”
(Henry) “You’ll have what daddy gives you.”
(Richard) “I am next in line.”
(Henry) “To nothing!”
(Richard) “Then we will have the broadswords now.”
(Henry) “This minute?”
(Richard) “On the battlefield.”
(Henry) “So we’re at war.”
(Richard) “Yes, we’re at war at 2000 and Poitier.”

(Charnoff) Once Henry has his three sons locked up, he unveils his new scheme to his mistress, Alais, played by Gina Michaud of St. Johnsbury.

(Henry) “We’re off to Rome to see a pope.”
(Alais) “He’s excommunicated you again.”
(Henry) “He’s going to set me free. I’m having Elanor annulled. The nation will be shocked to learn our marriage wasn’t consummated.”
(Alais) “What happened last night after I left?”
(Henry) “Oh we hugged and kissed a little.”
(Alais) “Oh, be serious.”
(Henry) “I told her you and I are getting married.”
(Alais) “By the pope himself.”
(Alais) “You mean it?”
(Henry) “Shall I kneel?”
(Alais) “It’s not another trick?”
(Henry) “he bridal party’s drilling on the cobblestones.”
(Alais) “She loves you, Henry.”
(Henry) “See for yourself.
(Alais) “She’ll find a way to stop us.”
(Henry) “How? She won’t be here. We’re launching her for Salisbury Tower when the wind’s changed. She’ll be bobbing down the river Vien by lunchtime.”
(Alais) “If she doesn’t stop us, Richard will.”
(Henry) “Suppose I do the worrying.”
(Alais) “He won’t like losing me.”
(Henry) “He’s lost a damn’s sight more than you. I’ve corked him up.”
(Alais) “He’s in the cellar with his brothers and the wine. The royal boys are aging with the moral port”.

(Charnoff) In addition to playing Henry, Russ Longtin is producing and directing The Lion in Winter. Longtin met and interviewed the playwright James Goldman in 1978. They became friends, and worked together on later productions.

Longtin says the two men shared an interest in going behind the scenes of historical events. He says Goldman’s plays go beyond the surface of what people have learned of history through rote memorization in high school.

(Longtin) “I’m much more interested in the personalities of the people who forged those events and those dates and those places. And that’s what Goldman said about the play, he wasn’t interested in history. He just was curious about what kinds of people these people must have been. He created people that he thought would exemplify what was going on with those characters. And he’s pretty accurate.”

(Charnoff) Director Russ Longtin says that James Goldman succeeded in drawing history-wary audiences in with compelling family drama.

(Longtin) “You may sit down where a king is beginning the day, with objectives in mind but actually what you’re going to see you’re going to forget that after a while, because it’s about any family going through dysfunctional issues every day, the fact that they’re wearing capes and crowns is just irrelevant.”

(Charnoff) Gina Michaud, who plays Alais of Aquitane, agrees that the human element of The Lion In Winter makes history relevant to the modern audience.

(Michaud) “One of my favorite lines is Henry’s: We are the world in small. A nation is a human thing. It does what it does for our reasons. And I just think that’s really applicable to things that are going on now, even though this is a medieval show. We seem to forget that there’s people behind everything, behind every historical event, behind every great thing that’s happening now, there’s people behind it who are doing it for there own human reasons.”

(Charnoff) Playwright James Goldman died in 1998. Director Russ Longtin says this production is being dedicated to the memory of his friend and colleague.

For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.

Note The Lion in Winter will be performed at Burlington’s Waterfront Theater August 4th, 5th and 6th, at the Barre Opera House August 11th and 12th, and at Johnson State College August 31st and September 1st.

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