The moment Rebecca Spence steps on the Court Theatre stage as Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter,” the atmosphere changes. Here’s something special. Spence doesn’t seem like a player in a costume drama, but the real Queen Eleanor—beautiful, elegant, devastatingly witty and hiding a dagger under her red bell sleeve.
Spence is so good as Eleanor, the part that won Katharine Hepburn her third Oscar in 1969, that it makes the production look lopsided. It’s not that the other actors in this Court production aren’t good—John Hoogenakker is a strong Henry II, and Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton is fun to watch as the pimply, slouchy, sullen Prince John. It’s a fine cast, and director Ron OJ Parson keeps the action sharp and the dialogue clear. But Spence is so much better than everyone else, she so completely commands the material, that it’s like she’s in a separate play.
Written in 1966 by James Goldman, “The Lion in Winter” is set in the English king’s court in the twelfth century. Henry II had imprisoned Eleanor for conspiring against him but let her out temporarily for Christmas. The family is full of schemers. Henry wants his youngest son, the ridiculous John, to be king, while Eleanor favors Richard Lionheart (Shane Kenyon), a great warrior who is secretly gay. Middle child Geoffrey (Brandon Miller) is just trying to get noticed, like a medieval Jan Brady. (The plot may seem familiar to fans of the TV series “Empire”—writer Danny Strong said “Lion” was an influence.)
Meanwhile, King Philip of France (Anthony Baldasare) is staying for the holiday, demanding that his half-sister Alais (Netta Walker) marry a future king or else he wants her dowry back. Henry wants Alais for himself and constantly throws his affair in Eleanor’s face.
“The Lion in Winter” is one of my favorite movies, but the script is showing its age—like a kitchen with avocado-green appliances. It seems to be trying to be both “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Shakespeare and manages neither. Some of its lines fall flat, as when Henry jokes “Well, what shall we hang—the holly or each other?” or “The sky is pocked with stars.” It’s hard to imagine an actual human saying something like that. But some are wonderful—as when Eleanor tells Henry “I can peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice.” It’s kitschy and bitchy and fun—a historic soap opera, not to be taken too seriously as history or literature.
However, a great performance can elevate a not-quite-great script, and that’s what Spence does. Eleanor has some clunker lines, like “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” But she also gets the best ones, like her speech about how royals are the breeders of war—“We carry it like syphilis inside.” Her Eleanor is tough and spikey, but also vulnerable and still in love with her husband. She is a truly intelligent and theatrical character, completely self-aware, creating spectacles, telling truths and fables.
Ultimately, when you get past the tangle of plots, this play is about a marriage, and Spence and Hoogenakker are touching as a couple who are still in love, while also being at war.
Spence is the main reason to see this play—and it is reason enough. So go see her as Eleanor, and be comforted by the fact that, however uncomfortable it may be at your family’s house this Thanksgiving, it would be worse at King Henry’s castle.
“The Lion in Winter” is on stage at Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis, through December 3. Tickets available at courttheatre.org.