The chap behind me at the opening of Snoo Wilson's two-hander HRH (rewritten from its first production at Clwyd and Glasgow in 1994) explained to his companions before curtain-up: "Corin Redgrave's now made something of a habit of appearing as unpleasant establishment figures, and portraying them as worse than they are." And indeed, after his recent roles as Sir Roger Casement and George Washington, here is Redgrave as David, Duke of Windsor, Governor of the Bahamas (for it is the summer of 1943) and – according to the play – dreadfully wearing in his besotted infantilism. Indeed, if Wilson's imagination is even partly to be believed, we may never realise how close the country came to being ruled by Nigel Bruce.
The comparison is not an idle one. As Bruce is most remembered for his bumbling film portrayals of Dr Watson, so the former Edward VIII, a soi-disant devotee of whodunits, decides to turn sleuth over the murder of wealthy vulgarian Sir Harry Oakes. In this case, however, his partner in detection is not so much Holmes as Moriarty. Wallis plays upon her husband with considerably more skill than he does upon his beloved ukulele, manoeuvring him into arresting a disreputable playboy hairdresser for the murder instead of the man whom they both realise is the prime suspect, but who happens to have the goods upon David's idiotic deposit of £2 million in a Nazi bank in Mexico.
Amanda Donohoe's Wallis is wonderfully brittle, by turns fire and ice in her contempt of her husband, which is veiled so thinly that only one as dim as he could fail to notice it. She constantly berates him for having given up the throne, for having failed to secure her those three magical initials before her name and for nurturing dreams of being reinstalled as king by Hitler. Redgrave's David is such a wet and a weed that Wallis's only conceivable motive in marrying him can be naked ambition; indeed, both his performance and Wilson's script go far beyond satire into the realm of unfunny cartooning.
The play fatally lacks interest. We know now that the Windsors were far from the fairy-tale couple of mythology, and merely writing them larger does nothing to transform their fundamental banality. Simon Callow's direction cannot overcome the fact that nothing whatever happens for the first hour of the play, until Oakes is murdered offstage – the two actors must instead peddle an endless series of "Do you remember...?" anecdotes – and precious little occurs even thereafter. Donohoe is given a fine monologue of hallucinatory sexual fantasy at one point, and elsewhere, as she bemoans the tribulations of PR-motivated "good works" by a not-quite-royal woman, Wilson comes deliciously close to saying the currently unsayable. In general, though, there may yet be a fine play to be written about Edward and Wallis, but HRH, in common with the woeful musical Always, is far from being it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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