Heidelberg Theatre Company brings the Lion In Winter by James Goldman in from the cold.

 

The play is historically fictional as it chronicles the personal and political conflicts of Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine but its significance to HTC holds rather more verity, states director Karen Wakeham. “The Lion in Winter was chosen by Heidelberg Theatre Company as part of its 60th birthday celebrations, because members had very fond memories of a wonderful production in 1982. It was given to me, and I was glad to accept the challenge, as it is well-known as a Broadway blockbuster and Oscar-winning film for Katharine Hepburn in 1969. And it has become a classic of the American stage, and part of the reason for this is the perennial nature of its concerns.”

To follow a film (particularly a classic as this is) can be  a tough gig for any theatre company to pull off so directors must choose their cast wisely. Wakeman had some very clear ideas about the type of actors she would be sourcing. “ I was looking for intelligent actors, people capable of seeing and managing the literary aspects of the writing, with a capacity for both the light comedy and eviscerating drama the text demands. Serious contenders asked for, and were given, pieces to prepare. Auditions were open. There were many moving and thoughtful approaches to each character presented by candidates, so it was easy to choose the final cast in one sense. However many who were not given roles also presented outstanding work.”

Difficult indeed to make casting choices when given some top heavy contenders but casting multi-award winning actor Juliet Hayday in the pivotal role of Eleanor was a very wise decision indeed. Chris McLean, another multi-award winning actor, takes the role of Henry. “Eleanor is one of the great theatrical roles for women. Why wouldn’t I want to audition?” says Hayday. “She is a huge challenge. There is a vast range of emotions to try to capture and some wonderful interplay with her sons, and with Henry. Chris McLean and I are having great fun with our scenes, even when we are being horrible to each other.”

The five other actors who complement this piece, sharing the stage with Hayday and McLean, are: Tom Stammers, John Murphy, Timothy Camilleri, Kieren Tracey, Julia Christensen. “The best actors have always a combination of instinct, talent and skills,” says  Wakeman. “They form quick insights into textual intention and use vocal and physical capacities to express these insights with an individuality that is also faithful to the writer’s perceived intention. They are easy in any space, physically able to convey mood and character, and are vocally confident. All these things I was fortunate to find in every member of this cast. I am aware of what a rare stroke of good luck we have been given.”

While historically inaccurate, this period piece does have specific demands re. costume, accent, behaviour – all that goof stuff that actors crave. Discovering these specific character traits and literary challenges can be a tricky business. “The script demands big shifts in feelings, motivation, tone and action within the short space (at times) of a line or two,” explains Wakeman. “This difficulty we solved with lots of collaborative text study before taking our work to the floor. The solid base of understanding it provided us with was to strengthen genuine character development and sound ensemble performance..”

Hayday, the librarian with a love of history tells a similar tale: “Working in period costumes is always a challenge, wimples, crowns, gowns and draping sleeves. The biggest challenge is keeping her real. It would be easy to become carried away with this larger than life character, to focus on the rhetoric, but the audience has to connect with her, particularly if the ending of the play is to work.”

“I saw the original film with Kate Hepburn and Peter O’Toole when it was released in the 60s,” continues Hayday. “And was immediately taken by it. It was funny, sharp and moving, and not like any other historical film I had ever seen, since much of the dialogue is quite modern.  I have always loved medieval history, and Eleanor is one of my favourite characters, although most of her life is largely undocumented and only cited in relation to Henry’s. She was indeed a ‘woman out of legend’.

HTC has a reputation for creating ‘big’ plays. In recent times it has been Grapes of Wrath, Angels in America, Cloudstreet and Under Milkwood to name a few. They are also no slouches when it comes to creating memorable costume dramas: Arcadia, The Cherry Orchard, Pygmalion, Uncle Vanya et al. Directors of these ‘big’ plays want the plays to resonant and Wakeman is no different. “Goldman included many deliberate anachronisms in his play,” she says. “Not merely mention of ‘a goodnight kiss with milk and cookies’ or a sixteenth century four-poster bed. His intention is to show the audience that in families like this one, nothing has changed over the many centuries. We recognise the love and the disappointments, the knives real and metaphorical, the greed, the distresses and also the humour with which he has invested what were once real people who, as he says, ‘wriggle in your mind. Eleanor puts it nicely. ‘What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?’”

The Lion In Winter plays from February 23 – March 10
HTC 36 Turnham Ave Rosanna
http://home.vicnet.net.au/~htc/plays/2012/1lion.html

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