Theatre Passe Muraille recently opened the much-anticipated world première of Linda Griffiths' The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson. Linda Griffiths, whose proven talent as a playwright (Maggie and Pierre, The Darling Family), also wears the hat as star in the title roll of the celebrated social climber and crown smasher. The Duchess is directed by veteran theatre wizard Paul Thompson (of Blyth Festival's Booze Days in a Dry Country fame) and, in addition to Griffiths, features a stellar ensemble of six actors who play over thirty characters, which establishes, but sometimes hinders, the epic scope of the production, by presenting the audience with an often baffling character overload. Among many other minor characters, David Fox plays stern George V and charmer Hitler; Donna Goodhand is gin-tippling Queen Elizabeth [The Queen Mother] and Hitler's mistress Eva Braun; John Jarvis is both first hubby, American Win Spencer, and the royally cuckolded Briton Earnest Simpson, Count Von Ribbentrop and stammering George VI; Louis Negin is aging queen Noel Coward; Jennifer Phipps is bombastic Queen Mary and airhead Lady Sibil Colefax; and Jonathan Wilson is oedipal Edward VIII. Set and costumes are by Astrid Janson with lighting design by Lesley Wilkinson.
Borrowing a device from Webber's Phantom, the play opens with an auction of the Windsors' artifacts, including the famous abdication desk. A campy Noel Coward is our auctioneer, and continues to outline the story's royal progress. Presented in a series of playlets, the production covers the period of Wallis Simpson's early life, her previous two marriages (specifically with Earnest Simpson, who lay down his wife for the Crown), her captivation with Chinese mysticism and erotica, her adulterous affair with the reluctant and sexually ambiguous King-in-waiting, the post-abdication debacle, and the death of the exiled former king.
The woman who coined "You can never be too rich or too thin," Wallis Simpson is presented as the Yoko Ono of her time -- both reviled and championed by the public as the seductress who stole a king. Plain, sexual, brash, sensational and stunningly charismatic, the fierce and fashionable Wallis captured the heart of Edward VIII, prompting his abdication in 1936 and changing the course of British history forever.
The play is set on a barren thrust stage replete with trapdoors through which many of the characters emerge and disappear, including her cluster of jewels, portrayed by a quartet of "brilliant" actors, who constantly taunt their bewitched Wallis. Like the jewels, the dialog is sparkling and witty. An example: Wallis' retort to Coward's challenge that there are "rumors you are a man." Wallis snaps back, "There are also rumors that you are a man!"
In a shockingly real scene, we become flies on the palace wall witnessing a blazing royal row between the reluctant queen, Elizabeth, and the avaricious royal gatecrasher, Wallis. Irreverent and ribald, this mostly true drama was written two years ago, and before the Diana tragedy that caused the playwright to change Wallis' ultimate curse on the House of Windsor from the too-obvious "this House will be brought down by a woman" to the equally telling, "brought down by Style." With the royal family once again under public scrutiny, this story of fairytale romance and the future of the British monarchy takes on even more relevance and poignancy.
Griffiths' formidable gifts are evident in her fiery portrayal of Simpson. It's the first time we at Stage Door have seen this rising star of the Canadian stage, and the proof of her double-barrelled talent is here for all to see. Wilson is a slight but effective Edward, portraying the reluctant heir as a needy, besotted co-dependent who discovers true love, albeit kinky, with Wallis. (Note to Astrid: Calvin Klein was not designing underwear in the 1930s.) Other outstanding performances include Shaw Festival veteran Phipps' oh-so-veddy blustering Queen Mary and the versatile Fox's leering Hitler and fearsome George V.
This period piece is saved from the common flaws of its ilk, often grandiose and overextended, by splendid writing and acting that is involving, rather than artificial, revealing a part of history that, despite its widespread coverage in the world press, remains shrouded in mystery. The Duchess runs to February 22, at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, 16 Ryerson Ave. For tickets ($19 to $28), call the box office at (416) 504-PLAY (7529). The play runs Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday (Pay-What-You-Can) at 2:30 p.m.