By Linda Griffiths. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Ruby Slippers Theatre production. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Wednesday, April 8. Continues until April 18
Playful, sexy, irreverent—The Duchess is a lively ride through the life of 20th-century icon.
In The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson, legendary Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths, who passed away last year, explores the life of Wallis Simpson—the twice-divorced American socialite for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in 1936. With the playwright’s blessing, director Sarah Rodgers created this pastiche of Griffiths’s original script and a much later rewrite for a production at UBC in 2012. Griffiths liked the result so much that she subsequently republished the play, using the new version.
“It was my fault, the whole century” is how the spirit of Simpson opens her life story, which she tells with a little help from her friend Noël Coward and a host of “society ghosties”.
In the afterlife, Simpson—who was suspected of being everything from a Nazi spy to a man in drag—is finally in control of her narrative. Griffiths makes liberal use of both fact and rumour, and she revels in absurdity: a sexually charged meeting between Simpson and Adolf Hitler is just one example. But Simpson’s motives are enigmatic: does she actually love the king, or is she simply ambitious?
Under Rodgers’s direction, the 10-member cast, an adept mix of veterans and newcomers, tackle nearly 30 roles, and their energy never wavers. Melissa Oei is hilariously over the top as both a Chinese prostitute and an eyelash-batting society bimbo. Georgia Beaty’s purse-lipped Queen is another comic success; recurring scenes of the royal family are exercises in hilarity. As Noël Coward, Xander Williams shamelessly charms the audience while singing, dancing, and playing a mean saxophone.
Amid this zaniness, Craig Erickson gives Edward a vulnerability that’s both credible and affecting. As the title character, Diane Brown seems oddly subdued at first for someone who’s the life of the party, but her down-to-earth approach makes sense of Edward’s appreciation: “You don’t know her—she’s real,” he says.
And what a party. Michael Block’s exquisite art-deco set, John Webber’s sumptuous lighting, and Mara Gottler’s dazzling costumes create a visual feast, while Shelley Stewart Hunt’s choreography is infectiously fun—when Simpson teaches everyone to dance the Black Bottom, they nearly blow the roof off the Cultch.
“You can’t just get rid of women like me—we stick,” says Simpson at one point. With portrayals as memorable as this, she’s likely to stick around for a long while yet.