Dead Royal (Brisbane Festival and QUT)
Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio
September 15 – 19
As audience members enter the La Boite Studio for performance of “Dead Royal”, it is to the sight of writer, directed and performer, London-based Australian expat Chris Ioan Roberts as Wallis Simpson, lounging flayed out on a chaise lounge, without wig but dressed very primly in an all-black ensemble, (for she believes in never wearing seasonal colours). As the show starts, she finalises her dressing to the instantly identifiable crescendoing sounds of the epic ‘Tara’s Theme from “Gone with the Wind” before a melodramatic shellfish-allergy-induced vomit over a magazine whose cover features celebration of the Prince of Wales, Charles’ engagement to Lady Diana Spencer.
It is 1981 and a time of videos and cassette tapes and the setting is France, where 82-year-old Wallis has fictitiously been living in continued exile. As host, Simpson awaits Diana’s arrival at her bachelorette party, longing for what could have been with the now decade-dead Edward, who abdicated his throne as King Edward VIII in 1936 to marry the infamous American socialite and divorcee. She may have aged ‘like a loose meat sandwich’, but the American is clearly as feisty and vulgar as ever, which Roberts captures to perfection in delivery of witty anecdotes and commentary about the royals and the new princess’ choice of clothes (this is early ‘80s Diana remember) in the cleverly-written part monologue, part one-handed conversation with her French servants.
When Roberts transforms into the more innocent, 19 year old Diana for the majority of the second half of the show, her comparative innocence is immediately identifiable, not only though her contrasting white shoes and bag but in carriage, body language and tone of voice as she talks of David Emanuel’s wedding dress design excitement compared to her desire just to look ‘dead royal’. And although naïve, her talk of Charles’ passions reveals hint at their retrospectively obvious essential differences (“how can one man have so much to talk about?”)
Solo shows are by nature challenging when it comes to prolonged audience engagement. By presentation of its narrative through two such distinct characters, “Dead Royal” elevates itself beyond expectations of an on-paper premise that could so easily have come across as gimmickry. It is, instead a sharp, intellectual show that gets everything right, thanks to the comic and dramatic skills of a performer who can transform seamlessly between two distinct characters without detracting from the humanity of the show’s tragic undertones. And the inclusion of the “Gone with the Wind” motifs add an interesting and unexpected layer to the work, further uniting the two stories; Diana mentions her lack of motivation to read the book and difficulty to remain awake when watching the movie, not yet having herself developed the Scarlet O’Hara self-assuredness that personified the now-bitter Wallis Simpson.