“If you’ve not had a 4-part miniseries made about you, you’ve not lived”
Imagining a meeting between the woman who nearly brought down the monarchy and the woman credited with saving it, Chris Ioan Roberts’ Dead Royal sees him take on both the roles of an 82-year-old Wallis Simpson and a 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in a fiercely funny hour of high-camp high comedy. The plot, insofar as the piece technically needs something to hang on, sees the ageing Duchess of Windsor determined to warn Diana off her impending nuptials, whilst the younger woman is after a significant pearl necklace that Wallis kept with her after the abdication crisis subsided.
But Dead Royal is less about story and much more about storytelling as Roberts does a magnificent job of inhabiting the twisted characterisations he has created. Swimming in a sea of pink Charbonnel et Walker chocolate boxes and surrounded by (unseen) servants who can never make her happy, this Wallis is a witheringly caustic delight, any fragility offset by a long-held bitterness that feeds her like a toxic energy, trying unsuccessfully to fend off the loneliness that her situation has placed her in, her barbed observations cutting deep even as she feigns a long-wearied self-deprecation.
The transformation into a youthfully apprehensive Diana deepens the pathos of the show, her naïveté at the enormity of the institution she’s about to enter twinges with sadness, even as she too demonstrates a gift for contemptuous comedy in the lacerating of her husband-to-be. Roberts’ writing is astutely judged throughout, absolutely nailing the tragicomic tone of this pair and their comparable lots in life but where he really excels is in the moments inbetween the text, when his performative side really comes to life and brings a whole new layer of substance.
There’s something so powerful about the transition between the two characters – Roberts never leaves the stage as he disrobes, unwigs, casts off the hunched posture of Wallis to adopt new fashion, new hair, a whole new demeanour as Diana – its gender politics plain to see in that there’s no hiding he’s a man but the construction of these selves in front of us reflects the reality of composing the perfect image for the public, showing us that this is much more than simple impersonation. Likewise the use of spoken word lip-sync speaks volumes about Wallis’ state of mind as she watches an ITV dramatization of her life, the silence of the final scene focusing us on the true depth of her pain.
Relentessly, scathingly funny, and yet unexpectedly moving, this is theatre that ought to appeal to both monarchists and republicans (though probably not new baby royals, there’s a touch too much choice language about their great-great-grandma ;-))