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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Untitled
Finborough Theatre February-March 2009

Few twentieth-century stories have a hold on the British imagination to match that of Edward VIII, and you might think that the mountain of books, movies, plays and TV docudramas had exhausted the subject.

But playwright Lena Farugia has actually found a piece of the epic not fully explored before, creating a small but touching and illuminating drama of character and memory.

Farugia's subject is the life of the Duchess of Windsor after the Duke's death in 1972, the years in which the woman who had once been the most famous - and equally most admired and reviled - in the world lived on in declining health and gilded isolation.

We meet the Duchess in the late 1970s, kept a virtual prisoner by her staff in the name of protecting her from the paparazzi and from the exposure of her decline. She is attended by a butler who listens patiently to stories he has heard a hundred times before, and allows her occasionally to confuse him with her beloved David and cast him in her memories.

And so we get, through flashbacks, some of the more familiar parts of the tale, along with facts we may already know, such as her conviction that the woman we knew as the Queen Mother was her greatest enemy in the royal family. Her contempt for Elizabeth stands alongside more lightly bitchy comments on others, from Mountbatten to Margaret, and gives us a taste of the wit and intelligence that caught the eye of the Prince of Wales a half-century earlier.

But Farugia's real contribution is her imagined characterisation of the older Duchess, as a woman who had loved truly, but for whom love and acquisitiveness were not distinct or mutually contradictory. To her, being taken care of was the same as being loved, and the (absurd) spectre of poverty is as traumatic as the solitude of widowhood.

This Duchess can grieve sincerely for her husband while greedily fondling the jewellery he gave her, can remember her decision to remain married to Earnest Simpson as long as possible as both romantic and a means of protecting her financial security, with no contradiction.

In presenting this complex and not-unsympathetic characterisation, the playwright is beautifully served by her director and cast. Nichola McAuliffe bravely displays all the woman's virtues and flaws, alternately winning and losing our sympathy and then winning it back again, particularly since she also, with great subtlety, never lets us lose sight for too long of the fact that this is a deeply lonely and fading old woman-who-had-once-been-glamorous. Only an occasionally wavering accent briefly gets in the way of this beautifully honed portrait.

As the servant, Patrick Ryecart faces the different challenge of playing what are, in effect, three different roles - the man himself, the man as seen through the Duchess's eyes, and the Duke of her flashback memories. Ryecart navigates among them with easy skill, taking us with him through the play's several realities and contributing valuably to the dreamlike atmosphere.

Director Peter Cregeen is to be credited for finding exactly the right tone for this memory play and guiding his actors to create and sustain it, and designer Alex Marker deserves praise once more for transforming a tiny above-a-pub space - and a tiny budget - into a fully realised setting.

Farugia's play ends with a twist that helps to explain its fluid structure and leaves us with a particularly resonant image of the silent and white-faced Duchess in a fading spotlight, like a ghost haunting the House of Windsor and the British collective memory.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Untitled - Finborough 2009