Last evening I sat down to watch a 2003 Showtime remake of The Lion In Winter starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in the lead roles previously owned by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn.

I was intrigued by the idea of Stewart and Close having a whack at this play, both of them being outstanding actors in their own right.  And I was hoping that if they were going to mount such a production, it might prove to be something different from its famous predecessor. (How’s that for broadmindedness, my fellow port-swillers?)

Alas, no such luck.  In fact, the screenplay for this film was exactly the same one used previously.  Many of the shots were virtually identical, not just in their staging but in the action and even the actors’ inflection.   About the only difference was that the sets were generally much lighter and less gritty, giving the whole thing a kind of Medieval Hallmark feel.  (It floated into my mind that this was approximately the same treatment that Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman gave to the 19th Century American frontier.  I half expected the thing to be interrupted by a commercial for feminine hygene products.)

As for the characters, there were times when I could have sworn Close was mimicking Hepburn, right down to the wobbly head and voice.  Only once in a very great while did she seem to find her own style, to be her own Eleanor.  Stewart, on the other hand, seemed to be trying to create his own Henry, but the fact of the matter is that he’s just too slick for the part and doesn’t have enough, well, animal in him.  Striding about in his long, gray hair and beard, he looked more like the Chair of an English Department getting ready to black-ball a tenure application than a 12th Century Norman king deciding his succession.  One couldn’t help imagining that O’Toole’s Henry would have had Stewart’s for breakfast.

As for the supporting cast, none of whom I’d ever heard, there’s not much to say.  Richard looked like a switch-hitter from the get-go.  Geoffrey looked like a young, impossibly clean, Pierce Brosnan and didn’t have the proper oily politico quality.  John was more bumpkin than lout this time around.  Phillip was Gollum with long hair.

Perhaps because of the lack of real personality in the cast, I also found myself becoming somewhat impatient with the play itself:  All the ins and outs, the intrigues, double-crosses and snappy dialogue begin to seem to me to be…..too impressed with its own cleverness.  (I get that same feeling whenever I see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.)  It’s good stuff the first time you see it, especially when served up by the best of the best, but it don’t seem to me to wear very well.

Indeed, I got thinking about writing my own play, to consist of nothing but two characters playing chess while at the same time fighting their own geopolitical battle with words: each move of one character will be blocked by a move of the other made in anticipation of the move the first character was going to make.  The process will keep spiraling backwards, as it were, to some particularly silly conclusion (or beginning?) which I have not yet mapped out.

Bet I could get a few good laughs out of it.

Anyhoo, on the whole, it seems to me that if you’re going to watch The Lion In Winter,  you’ll be much better off sticking with the original.