The Duchess: a.k.a. Wallis Simpson
At Telus Studio Theatre (UBC) until Oct. 6
Tickets: 604-822-2678, email@example.com
I don’t know if I learned anything factual about Wallis Simpson in Linda Griffiths’ The Duchess. Did Mrs. Simpson, in bed with the future King of England (Kenton Klassen), really strike him with a riding crop and tell him repeatedly, “You’re a naughty boy”? Did she really strap on an empty toilet paper roll to see what it might feel like to be a man? Did she really consider dumping Edward for Hitler?
It doesn’t really matter if it’s all conjecture because under Sarah Rodgers’ direction this is one of the more stylish, well-directed and well-performed pieces of theatre seen on a UBC stage. And it exposes audiences to marvelous Pippa Johnstone (as Wallis), in her final year of the BFA program; she’s as relaxed and confident as someone who’s been treading the boards for years. The real Mrs. Simpson would definitely have approved.
Michael Bock’s art nouveau set is made even more beautiful with Miriam Thom’s period gowns; choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt and the cast of 11 treat us to a rousing version of the dance rage of the time, the hilarious Black Bottom.
I don’t know if Noel Coward really hung out with Mrs. Simpson, but he does in The Duchess. Director Rodgers was thrilled to discover that Alexander Keurvorst, perfectly cast as Coward, sings and plays the piano. So an added pleasure—in this production—are the delightful musical bridges. I can hardly imagine The Duchess without them.
Playwright Griffiths leads us to ask but does not answer this question: Did Edward VIII give up the throne for a woman whom he loved but who did not really love him? She tends to get her characters into the bedroom; here, double entendres about such things as “the royal scepter” seem silly and out of place.
That aside, this is a terrific production, and even if the historical facts have been skewed, it’s very fine theatre.