Thursday, April 23, 2015

'Dead Royal' at the Ovalhouse, 22nd April 2015

The most perceptive line in Dead Royal comes when Diana Spencer is hunting for the 'Windsor Pearls'. She muses on the appropriateness of the pearl as symbol of royalty: a piece of dirt gradually encased within multiple layers of luxury until there's a perfectly glistening sphere. Yet deep within the dirt remains. 

Chris Ioan Roberts' one-man play is an attempt to winkle out that dirt, to try to understand the psychological and social pressure exerted on an individual as they're crowbarred into the royal mould. He takes on two subjects; the elderly Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson; and Diana Spencer, fiancee to Prince Charles and angelic media darling. 

We meet Simpson living in parasitic, Parisian stasis. With her husband dead, her life apparently consists of watching Gone With the Wind and gobbling down luxury truffles. But novelty is on the horizon; the fresh-faced Diana has been dispatched to the Simpson residence in advance of her wedding. Ostensibly there for her hen night, she's also on a secret mission to recover jewellery 'stolen' by the Duchess. Though two never meet (as they're played by the same person), both extemporise at length on what it's like to sacrifice your personality, ambitions and social freedom for a life of "expensive trinkets".

The pastel shades, dodgy wigs, 80s powerfrocks and diva mannerisms drive Dead Royal inexorably towards camp. But this isn't some preening exercise in aristocratic fetishism, more a critique of corrosive privilege. His portrayals function as an autopsy of these two women, peeling back the calcified public image and revealing the pissing, shitting and puking human being underneath. This drags us towards John Waters-ish trashiness; so the stage floor quickly being coated in a gross layer of goopy neon pink puke, and his Diana explains how she had to urinate in the back of a limousine.

Eventually Royal life begins to sound like a straitjacket, the slightest deviation from conformity resulting in a barrage from the press and disapproval from those higher up the ladder. The most obvious demonstration is Wallis Simpson's life in exile, shuffled out of the picture and supported on a stipend. Throughout, Diana's future woes lurk at the back audience's minds. She fantasises about hurling herself down the stairs at her wedding and, given the Paris setting, we can't help but think of her violent death.

Even so, it's a hard to muster up too much sympathy for two women who spent their lives living it large at our expense. Their Marie Antionettish fixations on style, sugary treats and image quickly begin to rankle, as does the low-level bitching about their incompetent servants. In a neat bit of staging, Roberts casts the audience as these underlings, Simpson in particular yelling orders out at us in a practised, privileged nasal drawl.

By the end of the play, the dresses, wigs and body language gave me vaguely insectoid creeps. Wallis in particular dresses in a carapace of thick black designer material, crowned with an imposing Imelda Marcos beehive. She's the endpoint of this process, yet we detect the first inklings of it arising in Diana. The insect comparisons make you think of a Queen Bee. Bloated and immobile within her birthing chamber, a life is devoted to squirting out offspring - a chilling endpoint for these ambitious woman.

This meaty little psychological tangle is never less than enjoyable to watch. Roberts' performances tiptoe between caricature, drag and sincerity. They're grotesques, but grotesques we can just about empathise with. There's also a breezy brevity - at about an hour long each line of dialogue and motion feels important. 

As a committed republican I'm no fan of the Royal family, but as with the recent King Charles III and The Three Lions I confess to curiosity as to what's going through their minds; how they justify their life of luxury, the limits they place their behaviour and what life inside the Royal bubble does to a person. In Dead Royal you get a tantalising peek behind the curtain - and it confirms every dark suspicion.


Dead Royal has three more performances, the 23rd, 24th and 25th (returns only). Tickets here.

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