New play shows royal romance as tragedy, farce Drama: In two hours, the play "HRH" sets out to demolish the lives and loves of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Sun Journal

November 05, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- The Bahamas. July 8, 1943.

Wallis Warfield Simpson prowls through the governor general's drab paneled drawing room, smoking cigarettes, bickering with her ukulele-playing husband, contemplating yet another miserable day marooned in the backwater of the British empire.

"You have no idea how hard it is to live a great romance," she cries out, shaking with rage.

This is royal romance as tragedy and farce, conjured up by playwright Snoo Wilson in his new drama, "HRH."

In two hours, the play sets out to demolish the lives and loves of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Before World War II, theirs was the royal love story of the century. He was the British king, Edward VIII, who in 1936 relinquished his throne to marry Wallis Simpson, the divorcee from Baltimore.

"They defined romance for a whole generation," Wilson says. "His abdication was made to look like a romantic gesture. That was all rather exciting. It gave the House of Windsor a kind of sparkle. Also, the abdication aroused all sorts of curiosity. And you wondered, 'Who are these people exactly?' "

Wilson isn't the first writer to take on the duke and duchess. And he likely won't be the last. More than 60 years after the abdication crisis of 1936, the story of the king and the woman from Baltimore continues to arouse interest.

It also stirs unique echoes in the wake of the Aug. 31 death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

On the play's opening night at London's Playhouse Theater, the audience gasped as Wallis lamented that the title, Her Royal Highness, had been withheld from her. Diana lost the HRH title after divorcing Prince Charles.

Diana's story has already created a publishing industry, with movies and plays likely to follow. But then, royalty has always been a subject for playwrights, from Shakespeare to the present day.

"There are still plays about Queen Victoria," says Wilson, 49, who has written for television and the theater, while publishing three novels. "The royals have a terrific ability to hang around long after they are dead."

For decades, though, it was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who kept scores of writers busy.

Dozens of books have been written on their relationship, ranging from scholarly accounts to a recent effort that claimed Wallis may have exhibited some signs of "gender confusion."

There were two major television documentaries on the couple in the past two years, including one by Prince Edward, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II. A couple of made-for-television dramas have also been produced.

And earlier this year, there was even a London musical, $l "Always," which shut in a few weeks after garnering horrid reviews from the critics.

The critics have been a bit kinder to Wilson's play, which stars Corin Redgrave as the duke and Amanda Donohoe, formerly of television's "L. A. Law," as the duchess.

John Gross of the Sunday Telegraph wrote that the play was "cheap and fairly pointless, but perfectly watchable."

Robert Butler of the Independent said that Donohoe's Wallis is "bored, bitchy and amoral, she's a Lady Macbeth for the Bahamas." He added, "you find yourself laughing at the outlandishness of the situation before realizing that a great deal of it is actually true."

Wilson appears to capture the duke and duchess at their down-and-out worst.

The duke is a shambling figure, who knits, mugs and follows his wife's orders. He's also pro-Nazi, even speculating on currency with a German-owned bank in Mexico.

The duchess is a manipulator, who titillates her husband with tales of steamy sexual encounters, including one alleged tryst with Joachim von Ribbentrop, German ambassador to London.

The play is a drawing-room mystery, as the couple confronts the death of Harry Oakes, the wealthiest man in the Bahamas, where the duke is serving as governor general.

Using fact, fiction and invention, the playwright Wilson tries to bring to life this mesmerizing couple.

"I've got great admiration for the duchess," Wilson says. "She's like a fearless predator. You're meant to feel anger and pity and terror at the both of them. But I feel that she is a more complete human being."

And what about the duke?

"I'm trying to portray a person who thinks he is living out the love of his life, that his sacrifice has been worth it," Wilson says. "He has to believe that. The duke sees himself as somehow modern. But he is more greedy and immoral than the stolid bourgeoisie he thinks he is replacing."

"He doesn't have the brains to examine his life," Wilson adds.

And what were they like together?

"They took themselves much too seriously," Wilson says. "That is the result of being photographed so much and being required to live up to the great romance. They were a media-hyped couple. They couldn't stop themselves."

Wilson says that in many ways, Wallis was a forerunner to Diana.

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