Wednesday 15 April 2015

The Duchess spins a lively tale for all time

Background scribblery on Wallis Simpson :  In his 1999 biography of Wallis Simpson, Greg King notes a rueful comment from Simpson late in her life : "You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance."

And that observation perhaps sums up the dynamic tension that underlay the frantic assignations and marriage, ultimately, between Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor and Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, a.k.a. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. 

Every Boomer and beyond knows their iconic love story : how King Edward VIII abdicated the British monarchy to his brother who became King George VI (dad to current Queen Elizabeth II). In the fateful radio broadcast announcing his abdication on December 11, 1936, "David" as his family knew him, said ; "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love." Oh my. The great American romantic F. Scott Fitzgerald could not have penned it better. 

Fact is, though, their "great romance" might be the stuff more of myth than of diary. And to "live out" such a story might in reality be more mere diary than endless drama.  Such as the fact that Simpson was disallowed the "style" of being referred to as Her Royal Highness. Her Grace is what kindly Brits would call her in sanguine moments, "that woman" in their more acerbic moods. 

But no mere diary this, I hasten to add, in the hands of Ruby Slippers Theatre director Sarah Rodgers who re-drafted the original 1998 script by the late playwright Linda Griffiths (who succumbed to breast cancer last September, at 60). Griffiths embraced Rodgers' new version interspliced with her own and championed its UBC re-mount in 2012. This is the script currently being replicated at the Cultch and, note, must close this Saturday April 18.

Much is known about the late "Mrs. Warfield" as was her legal identity after her second divorce -- interesting : she reverted to her maiden name but kept the address "Mrs." She was born at a hotel resort straddling the Pennsylvania / Maryland border in 1896 seven months after her parents married the previous November. When she was but five months old, her flour merchant dad from Baltimore died of tuberculosis. Thus from Year 1 Wallis commenced life on "the dole" -- gilt-edged dole, mind you -- supplied by family and friends, lovers, husbands, folks whose favour she curried in social circles from New York to Paris to London to Peking and beyond, but not before she matriculated at Maryland's most expensive and prestigious preparatory school, Oldfields. Biographer Phillip Ziegler (2004) wrote of her at this time of her life : "Though Wallis's jaw was too heavy for her to be counted beautiful, her fine violet-blue eyes and petite figure, quick wits, vitality and capacity for total concentration on her interlocutor ensured that she had many admirers." 

Structure of the play :  Griffiths' script is told as a flashback after The Duchess's death in 1986, and if ghosts could talk, as they do here, what a tale they might tell. Facts, factoids (tidbits that stand a 50% chance of being, or not being, true), anecdotes, fibs, favourable and unfavourable concoctions -- all of it is on display in this show that is done cabaret style with a narrator, flashy garish costumes, and lots of choreographed song-&-dance.  

Simpson was a collector of jewels and lovers and husbands and reputations equally so. The play commences with the auction of her jewels, many of which were thought to have been pilfered by the Duke by way of revenge for his family rejecting royal standing for his twice-divorced wife (one of those factoids...). Actors pop up on stage depicting the jewels being auctioned off gayly by none other than Noel Coward, no less, acting as piano-&-sax-man-cum-narrator but mostly as foil for Wallis and "David". 

In short order the 10-member cast flips the audience through some 30 different roles of the numerous characters and situations that featured strongly in Simpson's storied life tale : her jewels-come-to-life; King George V and his wife; Wallis's two husbands; David; various lords and ladies; Count Von Ribbentrop and Hitler; brother-in-law Bertie and queen (KG VI and Elizabeth I).  Griffiths in the program notes describes her theatrical oeuvre as one "to dance between the personal, the political and the fantastic", and The Duchess, a.k.a. Wallis Simpson achieves all of these objectives not just admirably but oh-so-cleverly and entertainingly and joyously despite the dark times in which the action takes place. Consider a cabaret-style seduction scene on a floor-drawn map of Europe between a pants-challenged Hitler and Simpson. The show cavorts in that kind of realm throughout.

Not for Griffiths or Director Sarah Rodgers the more typical views of these particular Windsors. In various books and critiques, Wallis Simpson is often depicted as caustic, pushy, risque, impertinent, impudent, demanding and dismissive. Rumours circulated that she was heterosexless (with all three husbands) but meanwhile is reported to have been mistress of a half-dozen or so dashing characters before, during and after her times as a Warfield, a Spencer, a Simpson and a Windsor. Wallis (Diane Brown) tells the audience : "He was begging me to give him something that I could not, so I bewitched him instead." 

For his part, "David" (Craig Erickson) is often dismissed as being a naif, a momma's boy, a hopeless romantic subject to wimpering ga-ga-isms, over-apologetic but politically an unapologetic Fascist to boot. In a New York Daily News squib in December 1966, the Duke stated : " was in Britain's interest and in Europe's too, that Germany be encouraged to strike east and smash Communism forever...I thought the rest of us could be fence-sitters while the Nazis and the Reds slogged it out." In the play he calls Simpson "Peach-ems" and repeatedly asks to lay his head on her lap, same as he did with his nanny as a kid in short pants. Still, he wasn't 100% a wuss : Winston Churchill banished him off the sceptered isle to be Governor of the Bahamas and went so far as to threaten him with military court marshall if he so much as set foot on Blighty soil again during WWII after rumours circulated both the Duke and the Duchess were feeding military secrets to the Nazis. 

What the characters bring : It's trite, granted, but a "willing suspension of disbelief" when worn by the audience as a vestment will allow the sheer spunk and zip! and satire and spoof of the cast to shine through. One needs to forget the "seriousity" of the times as a history buff once labeled it. How the abdication almost brought down the monarchy and the government along with it. How Simpson was reviled and shunned when Edward VIII forsook his kingly duties to marry her. How the myriad gentry Simpson introduced to dirty dancing and endless martinis turned tail on them abruptly, unforgivingly and permanently. 

The Griffiths script in the hands of Rodgers and her troupe is simply a stitch, a giggle, a night's breezy divertissement not intended to be one wit serious, nor is it. Not even when Simpson snaps at the Duke : "You're a wimp, a faggot, I hate your love, I'll kill it!" after the abdication trauma. She claims to be "a force, a gale, a tornado, not an English breeze" and is immediately corrected by Coward (Xander Williams) : "You have no idea of what love is. That diamond has more heart than you." More typically, the scene where each of Edward and Simpson and QEI debate with their partying friends over gallons of gin who has ruined one another's life more -- each claiming 1st prize -- was simply priceless good fun. As if to sum up the "point" of the evening's gambol, Simpson declares at the end : "It's a wise woman who knows she's a fool!"

Production values prevail : As Noel Coward / narrator, Xander Williams came nigh unto stealing the show out from under the principals Brown and Erickson. His Coward-esque ditties pounded out on the baby grand making endless fun of the scenes behind him were tight and thrifty and perfectly executed. Craig Erickson turned in a delightful "David", matching each of the descriptors noted above with nuance and split-second timing.

As Wallis Simpson, Ruby Slippers Theatre Artistic Director Diane Brown projected a corn-fed homespun American gal fresh off a Mason-Dixon farm with lines such as "Wait a cotton-pickin' minute...!" and her later protest about being a taker, not a doer : "I worked : it's work to be the belle of the ball", sounding for all the world like a pouty Scarlet O'Hara fast-forwarded 75 years. Such self-insights were amusing, as was "I'm a crass ambitious American trying to make her way through the complexities of British society!" that she announces early on. This only moments after dissing the House of Windsor she was soon to marry into as "the whole horse-faced, jug-eared lot of them". Not the Wallis Simpson more commonly described in biography (see Addendum below), but a believable caricature in this script for sure.

Kamyar Pazandeh as each of the African diamond, Ernest Simpson and the stuttery Bertie (King George VI) was choice. Great character clips, too, from Eileen Barrett as Lady Elizabeth, Georgia Beaty as Lady Colefax and the Queen, Raugi Yu as the goose-stepping but horny Von Ribbentrop and Matt Reznek as Hitler, though it must be added that each and every actor in their myriad characters on stage was crisp and droll in all their parts.

Costume Designer Mara Gottler deserves highest kudos on the production side, but lighting, sets, props & soundscape were also first-rate. For her part, musical Stage Manager Kelly Barker delivered choreography for the songs and dance numbers that was simply exceptional -- sheer delight !

Who gonna like : As indicated above, this is a wholly fun and whimsical production aimed to poke fun at the stupid human tricks otherwise sensible and sober people are quite capable to produce.  The Cultch Historic Theatre is the ideal venue for the night's fun-&-games, an intimate room that lends itself to the actors poking holes in the 4th wall to communicate with the audience and earn their cheers and huzzahs, very deservedly so. 

Particulars : A Ruby Slippers Theatre show sponsored by The UBC Department of Theatre and Film, produced by arrangement with The Talent House Inc., Toronto. Through this Saturday, April 18. Run time 180 minutes including intermission. Contact or phone 604.251.1363 for tickets.

 Production crew :  Director Sarah Rodgers.  Assistant Director Alen Dominguez.  Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Costume Design Assistant Jessica Oostergo.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Set & Props Designer Michael Bock.  Sound Designer Scott Zechner.  Technical Director and Production Manager Alex House.  Stage Manager Kelly Barker.  Assistant Stage Manager Jenny Kim.  Musical Staging Shelley Stewart Hunt.  Assistant Musical Staging Courtney Shields. 

Performers : Eileen Barrett.  Georgia Beaty.  Diane Brown.  Craig Erickson.  Joel Garner.  Melissa Oei.  Matt Reznek.  Kamyar Pazandeh.  Xander Williams.  Raugi Yu.  

Addendum :  In a article in February of 2012, reviewer Katherine Jose provided an extensive overview of the recently-published book by Anne Sebba, That Woman : The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor. In her closing paragraphs Jose writes, poignantly, words that contrast with the Griffiths script on certain levels, but not on others :

"Sebba devotes only 30 pages to the lives of Wallis and Edward after the war, for the rest of their lives. She paints a drooping picture of two figures floating between France and New York City, entertaining and occasionally lending themselves to charitable events. Their lives were defined by each other, the past, and aesthetics : decorating, shopping, holding formal dinners, being noticed by the newspapers. They were bitter toward the royal family, and Wallis was eternally frustrated that she no longer held the interest of people at high levels of society, government or the arts. Her wit grew sharper, and meaner. They wrote their separate memoirs, they ate next to nothing, and they drank a lot. Sebba cites reported opinions of Wallis that range widely, from vain and harsh to kind and thoughtful, while the Prince was primarily known only for his devotion to her. It's a spare description of a great deal of time that, actually, doesn't feel out of sync with the myth of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were immortalized in the moment of abdication.

'Nothing else in his life gave him any sense of achievement other than his marriage to Wallis,' Sebba writes. 'For her, the slavish devotion was at times claustrophobic and she was not afraid to show it. But love is impossible to define and in their case especially so. Few who knew them well described what they shared as love.'" 


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