Review: The Last of the Duchess, Hampstead Theatre

“I’m trying to get at the truth.
‘Your truth, not hers.’”

The Hampstead Theatre continues its trend of featuring plays concerning real people with The Last of the Duchess by Nicholas Wright, which is based on the book of the same name by Lady Caroline Blackwood detailing her attempts to secure an interview with the Duchess of Windsor towards the end of her life in 1980 to complete her literary profile of her. But though it is Wallis Simpson who is at the heart of the issue, the central figures are her lawyer Maître Suzanne Blum who staunchly defended her client from any outside influence or visitors with something of a siege mentality and Lady Caroline Blackwood herself, commissioned by the Sunday Times to interview the reclusive Duchess but also battling her own personal demons. This was the second preview so feel free to disregard everything written here if you are so inclined.

The play focuses on the battle of wills between these two women as Caroline senses a scoop in the mysterious atmosphere that permeates this Parisian household, intrigued by this powerful figure who now completely dominates the life of the Duchess and sees an opportunity to tell the story a different way. Anna Chancellor plays the disheveled aristocrat beautifully, determined to unravel the mystery she begins to uncover but barely able to keep herself from unraveling too, the glass of vodka that is never far from her hand failing to keep the turmoil of her personal life at bay. And in the other corner, Sheila Hancock exudes a Gallic imperiousness as the fiercely protective Blum, her every breath inexplicably dedicated to protecting the legacy of her employer and clearly relishing the power of attorney she now possesses, yet even she cannot resist the lure of a moment in the spotlight, becoming increasingly susceptible to the overtures to have herself interviewed and photographed by Lord Snowden instead.

There is huge pleasure to be had from watching these two fine actresses at loggerheads on stage as they each try and figure the other out and how best to deal with them, but it is Angela Thorne (mother to Rupert Penry-Jones no less) who steals the show with her appearance as Lady Diana Mosley, one of the Duchess’s closest friends yet even she cannot get past Blum’s formidable barriers, who brings her own tales of intrigue of missing pieces of jewellery which add to the mystery. Wright’s version of Mosley is highly amusing, if a little heavy-handed on reinforcing her prejudices, a grande dame of a society that no longer exists and Thorne delivers a portrayal of great humour. There’s also a nice turn from favourite-round-these-parts John Heffernan as Blum’s factotum/pupil Michael Bloch, with something of a fetish for demanding women and an endearing desire to please (though not with his wardrobe…) though ultimately possessed of the most common sense out of everyone.

The title of the play is actually ends up being something of a misnomer as it sets the initial attention in the wrong place, something played up to by Wright and director Richard Eyre in the dream-like first scene in which Caroline meets a younger Wallis Simpson. For this piece is less about the Duchess herself or even the mystery of what has actually happened to her – is she being kept prisoner by Blum or has she even perhaps died – but rather about more ephemeral subjects which swirl around each other. The main one seemed to me to be about the art of biography and whether it is ever possible to really capture the ‘truth’ of someone through any medium, whether poetry, paint or pen. As a muse to several artists, Lady Blackwood has much experience of the unspoken contract between artist and subject – Chancellor excellent in putting this across – yet Maître Blum has been the soul of utter discretion as a lawyer to a whole raft of famous people whom she has sworn never to talk about and so is unable or unwilling to submit herself fully to Caroline’s questioning. This would perhaps also force her to face up to the strangeness of her relationship to the Duchess which is left unresolved, an obsessive kind of love – at one point she imitates a pose of the Duchess’s by the mirror – but also a deep respect in trying to keep the legacy of a woman involved in one of the greatest scandals at the time free from smears and gossip: Hancock always keeps us guessing which is closest to the truth.

But it’s also about fragility, of memory, of life, of this particular time in society and how we deal with these things differently. There’s a gorgeous moment where Ladies Mosley and Blackwood sit next to each other on the sofa and talk from the heart, both unhearing of the other, Diana about the pain of seeing her husband slip away from her in life and Caroline about the enduring anguish she feels at the death of her own husband, from which she has yet to fully recover. This is counter-pointed by the recurring hints that Maître Blum is all too aware of her encroaching mortality, a particularly poignant moment sees her explaining away a linguistic mistake to Michael, a desperate attempt to save face in front of her pupil, to maintain this impassive facade even to someone who has managed to get relatively close to her.

Whereas the ‘fictionalised memoir’ of Loyalty and the based-on-a-true-story-with-some-bits-made-up No Naughty Bits both struggled to find a meaningful, effective middle ground between fact and fiction, I have to say that I felt The Last of the Duchess managed to avoid a similar fate. In all honesty, early on it is at times frustratingly elusive in its depiction of the state of affairs here in the Bois de Boulogne but then one comes to realise that it isn’t trying to fill in the gaps with an imagined series of events or its own version of history or score-settling (I’m looking at you Sarah Helm). Rather, it allows for the setting up of a qietly moving second half, an elegant study, musing effectively on its various subjects, topped off with some exceptional performances from some exceptional actresses (and Mr H!): I’ve no idea if the critics will like it, but I rather did.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Programme cost: £3, playtext also available for £3
Booking until 26th November

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