— Photo credit: Tim Matheson
The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson
A confession: I’m heavily emotionally invested in the production of The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson that I’m about to review. Long a big fan of Linda Griffiths, I brought her out to UBC to teach when I was Head of the Department of Theatre and Film. A big fan of this play, too, I strongly advocated for its production at UBC and was also involved in the hiring of Sarah Rodgers to direct it there. Sarah took Griffiths’ published script, based on the original Toronto production, and substantially reconstructed it--with Griffiths’ permission and ultimately her gratitude. Sarah made the play better and helmed an excellent UBC production. Griffiths was so impressed with that show that she had her play republished in Rodgers’ version and asked Sarah to write the foreword.
The Ruby Slippers production at The Cultch is the first professional mounting of this version. It’s directed, again, by Sarah Rodgers and includes some of the actors who appeared in the UBC show when they were students. Griffiths’ unbearably sad death from breast cancer last fall makes this production even more special. Wallis Simpson was a strong, complicated, controversial woman like so many of Griffiths’ other theatrical protagonists--and like Griffiths herself, who was reportedly very excited to know that Ruby Slippers’ Diane Brown would play the title role.
Griffiths’ script provides a linear version of Simpson’s life, from her first abusive husband through her marriage to Ernest Simpson and introduction to British society, to her affair and ultimately marriage with Edward “David” Windsor—for a short time Edward VIII—through his abdication, their exile and flirtation with Nazism, and his death. But the linear history is contained within a frame where Wallis gets to stage manage the re-creation of her life, conjuring cartoonish characters from the English aristocracy, dancing jewels, and Noël Coward, who acts as her master of ceremonies.
The show is a delight, and Xander Williams’ spectacular Coward nearly steals it with his gay wit, impossibly plummy accent and musical gifts. Williams plays piano (and sax and ukulele) and sings Coward ditties as choral commentary and scene-change cover. Pity that the grand piano drowns out Coward’s lyrics.
Rodgers’ entire ensemble is very good, with standouts Craig Erickson solid as always as the smitten Edward, Georgia Beaty delicious as the Queen mother, and Kamyar Pazandeh very fine as hapless Ernest Simpson and Bertie, the king-to-be. Mara Gottler’s gorgeous costumes provide the eye candy.
At the centre of it all is Wallis, who remains somewhat of a mystery. The play suggests that she has been demonized by history and the British royals—she’s presented as the Yoko Ono of her generation, jocularly blamed for causing both world wars and the Depression—and Griffiths appears to be writing a revisionist theatrical version of her life. But what to make of her? Is she a proto-feminist, a woman trying to make her way in man’s world, or just a gold digger? Smart or utterly superficial? Does she simply use Edward or did she, as she claims at his death, truly love him?
Brown’s performance doesn’t do much to clarify any of these questions. Brown does have Wallis’ raw, new world directness that so shocks the staid British aristos and energizes Edward. An early scene where she introduces the black bottom to them and gets everyone dancing, smacking themselves and wiggling their asses (cleverly and energetically choreographed by Shelley Stewart Hunt) perfectly captures the tornado that she set loose in the British court. But that subversive energy, and especially the glitter and sparkle that she is supposed to have embodied, are less evident as Wallis’ story progresses.
Maybe an echo of Wallis more contemporary than Yoko Ono is Hilary Clinton, a strong woman full of ambiguity, of the establishment, come to challenge the establishment. But can she do the black bottom?