Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 26 October, 2011
Virtually every stage production has a designated moment a few minutes into the show at which latecomers are to be admitted. Deliciously, in the case of Nicholas Wright’s play this point is literally the last of the Duchess: punters enter as the Duchess of Windsor exits after her sole, brief opening scene. For the play is not about her life in exile with and then her viduity after the death of the former Edward VIII, but about… well.
In the most direct narrative sense, it is about the tussle between the Duchess’s, to say the very least, fiercely protective and possibly wickedly possessive lawyer Maître Suzanne Blum and Lady Caroline Blackwood, dispatched by The Sunday Times to Paris in 1980 to write a profile of the Duchess but soon persuaded that Blum’s apparently iron grip on the ducal household was the more interesting story. Thematically, it is about portraiture: not only the truth that Blackwood might or might not attain in her piece (which later became the book, unpublished until Blum’s death in 1993, from which Wright has made this skilful adaptation), but the truth of any second-order account of a person; for Blackwood herself had been intimately portrayed in oils by her first husband Lucian Freud and in poetry by her third, Robert Lowell. On a tonal level, it is also about snobbery, what we expect of those of elevated social status and what we may forgive in them: Anna Chancellor’s Blackwood spends the second act knocking back vodka and growing ever more rambunctious, and the Windsors’ circle of acquaintance is represented by Angela Thorne as Diana Mosley (née Mitford), whose remarks about her beloved “Oz” show us how much vileness we British are prepared to excuse in someone well-bred who makes us smile. Richard Eyre, who directs with his usual scrupulousness and quiet incisiveness, describes the play’s subject as “snobbery with violence”.
Chancellor relishes the drunkenness (although most of her slips of the tongue are scripted), but she gets to the heart of a character who has profound experience of both the social and biographical dimensions to her assignment. Sheila Hancock shows Blum’s tendency to be overawed by titles but also her ramrod-straight professional principles regardless of what the power dynamic in the house might be. And Wright assuredly banishes the bland aftertaste left by his last adaptation Rattigan’s Nijinsky a few months ago.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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