We all know Christmas with the relatives can be trying, what with squabbles over the Scrabble and tantrums over the turkey. But spare a thought for the Plantagenets, assembled in poisonous rancour to celebrate the season without, since it is 1183, even television to relieve the sniping. In James Goldman’s 1966 play, a blend of fact and fiction revived here by Trevor Nunn, they gather at Henry II’s castle in Chinon to engage in several days of scheming and treachery. No wonder there aren’t many other guests.
There are presents under the tree (one of many deliberate blithe anachronisms), but the biggest gift at Henry’s disposal is his crown, and that is the one all three of his sons are after. Henry favours John, his youngest, and possibly most odious boy, but Eleanor of Aquitaine, his estranged wife (let out of prison for the occasion), presses for Richard (the Lionheart, a surly, hot-headed youth). This puts John and Richard, Henry and Eleanor at loggerheads, while Geoffrey, the shrewdest son, seethes at the fact that no one even considers him. Completing the jolly assembly is Alais (Sonya Cassidy), supposedly Richard’s fiancée but in fact Henry’s mistress, and her half-brother (Rory Fleck-Byrne), the proud King of France.
The plot consists of everybody trying to outmanoeuvre everybody else, spiced with sprinklings of dry wit. It starts out well, but the idea of a royal family bickering over kingdoms like playing cards begins to pall pretty soon, and because they are all so devious, the play ends no further on than it began. Meanwhile the characters are mostly so unpleasant you would soon happily see the whole lot of them tied up in a pudding cloth and hurled over the castle wall.
The chief fun lies in watching Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley, who as Henry and Eleanor offer a 12th-century version of Edward Albee’s George and Martha, locked in a love-hate embrace for eternity. Lumley brings poise, wit and crackle to Eleanor, while Lindsay exudes roguish charm. As the princes, Tom Bateman, James Norton and Joseph Drake do their best with parts that are really one note. It’s enjoyable to begin with but, like Christmas pudding, a little goes a long way.