ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE: MOTHER OF THE PRIDE by Catherine Muschamp, directed by Jean LeClerc, with Chapelle Jaffe. Presented by Coeur de Lion in association with Lioness Productions at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, August 18), opens Tuesday (August 23) and runs to September 10, Monday-Saturday 8 pm. $23-$26, Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
No other woman, not even Oprah, has had the power of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
If the name doesn't immediately ring a bell, don't worry.
She lived in the 12th century, wed twice and - through her marriages and her own inheritance - was the only woman to wear the crowns of both France and England. You might know her as the captive yet fiercely determined queen in James Goldman's The Lion In Winter, set during an eventful family Christmas gathering in 1183 that brings together Eleanor, her husband, Henry II, and three of their sons. Katharine Hepburn played the part opposite Peter O'Toole's Henry in the film version.
But Eleanor is a powerful enough figure to stand alone, as Catherine Muschamp's play Eleanor Of Aquitaine: Mother Of The Pride proves.
"You never get the totality of Eleanor in The Lion In Winter," says Jean LeClerc, who directs Chapelle Jaffe in the work. Coincidentally, LeClerc has also played Henry in The Lion In Winter.
"Eleanor is more vibrant than any female icon in our own century," continues LeClerc.
"You could argue that she was the first feminist, but I think she was more than that, a visionary able to foresee and plan a dynasty that could cover all of Europe."
Eleanor inherited the duchy of Aquitaine from her father when she was in her teens, and not long after that, when she married Louis VII, became queen of France.
She joined the Second Crusade with her husband, and after her return, when her marriage with Louis was annulled, wed Henry Plantagenet of Anjou, who became England's Henry II.
But the dreams she had with Henry never materialized.
"He was a philanderer," says the director, "and vengeful toward his sons.
"Never wanting to give up power, Henry destroyed the family, the dynasty and eventually Eleanor's life, though she outlived him by 15 years."
Just as important was the educated Eleanor's creation of what was dubbed a court of love when she ruled in Poitiers. Women had power, though that power was limited to a self-contained, upper-class society.
"Eleanor held that women were the equal of men. Actually, she said that women were superior.
"That's why I'm directing this show to the men in the audience. They're the ones who need the instruction," laughs LeClerc, who's also a writer, producer and performer in Canada and the States.
Known to TV audiences for his role in All My Children, he's also played Dracula on Broadway and on tour and follows his Toronto work with a directing gig in Montreal.
In fact, he feels he's bringing Canada's traditional "two solitudes" together in this production. Toronto actor Chapelle Jaffe plays Eleanor, reflecting back on her life as a still-energetic 82-year-old, while the design team is largely Quebecois.
Has LeClerc found it difficult to guide a one-person show?
"I don't think you direct such as show so much as accompany the performer," he admits. "We do a lot of work around the table on how to tell the story, how to save the actor's energy, how to make the character real rather than 'acted. '"
Rehearsals don't run from 10 to 6 each day the way they do in the anglophone stage world.
"We don't keep that sort of schedule in Quebec," he chuckles. "We're too Latin."