Love and hate with the Plantagenets

EMMA OUTTEN Eleanor of Aquitaine – one of the most powerful personalities of medieval Europe – died 800 years ago. Emma Outten spoke to the director of the forthcoming play, The Lion in Winter, at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, and the actress following in the footsteps of Katherine Hepburn.


Katherine Hepburn's Oscar- winning portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine back in 1968 immortalised on screen a fascinating female figure in medieval history.

The Lion in Winter pitted King Henry II against his strong-willed wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their three heirs in a 12th-century struggle for love and power.

Co-starring Peter O'Toole and featuring Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton in their film debuts, Hepburn won the Academy Award for her performance, and James Goldman an Oscar for his screenplay, adapted from his stage play.

The Lion in Winter was set around the Christmas of 1183, when Eleanor was over 60 years old – but far from retiring.

She died 800 years ago this year, having reached her eighties. The woman known as Eleanor the Eagle because she had stretched out her wings over two kingdoms – France and England – was born around 1122. The eldest of three children, she became heiress to the province of Aquitaine, largest and richest of the provinces that would become modern France.

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When Eleanor was just 15, her life was about to change forever. Her father Duke William X died suddenly of food poisoning.

Within a year, she had married the future king of France, Louis VII. From certain accounts of Eleanor, she was not one to stay at home making tapestries, and threw herself enthusiastically into the role of queen.

And at the time of the Second Crusade, Eleanor had no intention of sitting quietly at home while her husband went off on his adventure. So she took herself along with the company of 300 women.

But in 1152, the marriage was annulled and within months she married Henry Plantagenet who, two years later, became king of England. In 1173, her three eldest sons – Henry, Richard and Godfrey – rebelled against their father, with Eleanor's support. There then followed more than 15 long years when King Henry more or less kept Eleanor imprisoned.

It is during this period – Christmas 1183 to be exact – when The Lion in Winter is set. An ageing but crafty King Henry II plans a reunion where he hopes to name his successor. He summons his scheming but imprisoned wife, his mistress, Princess Alais, whom he wishes to marry, his three sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John), all of whom desire the throne, and the young but clever King Philip of France (who is also Alais's brother). With the fate of Henry's empire at stake, everybody engages in their own brand of deception and treachery to stake their claim.

James Goldman's sparkling comedy-drama depicted back- stabbing, spying, double-crossing and rampant infidelity – just a typical family Christmas for the Plantagenets.

Director Clare Howard, who makes her Maddermarket directorial debut with The Lion in Winter, said: “It is one of those lovely plays that is tragic and comic at the same time. It really captures the essence of a very dysfunctional royal family.”

At the same time Goldman shows that all families are the same; volatile mixtures of love, hate and reconciliation.

The 800th anniversary of Eleanor of Aquitaine's death was not lost on Clare when the idea for putting on the play at the Maddermarket arose. Clare described the female protagonist in the play as “one of the medieval women we know most about. Everyone has heard of her”.

Eleanor was the most colourful woman of her time, if not the most powerful and enlightened woman of her age.

The Lion in Winter “doesn't set itself up to be 100pc accurate historical drama”, said Clare.

On the night of Tuesday, September 21, there will be discussion night after the show for the audience. Clare is expecting a lively debate, but added: “At the end of the day it's a play.”

She continued: “The '60s film was such a big hit. People of 45-plus will be very aware of that film.”

But seeing The Lion in Winter on stage, added Clare, “is a very much more intimate and powerful experience”.

“That's why, even if you've seen the film, even if you've seen The Lion in Winter with someone else, it's still worth coming along to the show.”

Mel Sessions, the 53-year-old actress playing Eleanor, has been acting at the Maddermarket for more than 20 years. Playing Eleanor will be a “huge challenge” for her.

“She's an incredibly intelligent woman,” said Mel, “far more intelligent than I am or could ever hope to be!

“She was incredibly powerful. She held a lot of cards in terms of land.”

And she added: “What I've tried not to do is emulate Katherine Hepburn – she's a hard act to follow.”

The Lion in Winter opens on Thursday September 16 and runs to Saturday September 25, nightly at 7.30pm (excluding Sunday). There is an additional matinee on Saturday September 25, at 2.30pm. Tickets are £9 and £7 (concessions available at most performances). Maddermarket box office is on 01603 620917.

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