History Meets Mystery in ‘The Lion in Winter’

Dysfunction in the English royal family plays out against a backdrop of treason and civil war in “The Lion in Winter.” Actor’s Choice theater company opens James Goldman’s award-winning historical drama this week. 

The year is 1183, and King Henry II has called a Christmas court. He’s allowed his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, out of prison for the occasion. He needs to name an heir to secure an alliance with France. Will it be Richard (later known as the Lionheart), treacherous Geoffrey or Henry’s favorite, John? 

Goldman adapted his play into anAcademy Award-winning 1968 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. “The Lion in Winter” opens Thursday and runs through September 9 at the Henry Clay Theatre, inside the Henry Clay Building. 

Kathi E.B. Ellis has wanted to direct “The Lion in Winter” for years because it brings together her twin passions, theater and history. The characters are based on royalty, but the story imagines the how and why behind the dates and names. 

“Goldman’s script is a brilliant combination of some pretty good historical fact, some plausible wonderings about what could have happened and what might have happened when you put these powerful and volatile personalities together,” says Ellis. “Once you go sufficiently far back (in history), it’s kind of shrouded in mystery.” 

Ellis says the play is appealing to fans of both history and family drama alike.

“Yes, they happened to be kings and queens and princes and princesses that actually lived, but if you strip away that and look at the family, the somewhat dysfunctionally extended family dynamics, these are human emotions we al know and recognize,” she says.

And unlike classical historical dramas, “The Lion in Winter” is written in fairly accessible language. 

“The language is really clever, and it has a richness to it, but it’s definitely 20th century American prose,” says Ellis. “It isn’t classically heightened.”

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