It’s a testament to our enduring fascination with the British Royal Family that more than 70 years after the 1936 abdication ‘crisis’ the tale of how Edward VIII was willing to give up his kingdom for the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, still has such power that audiences will spend an evening with the story in the theatre.
Or course Ron Elisha, the author of Falling In Love Again, which has just opened at The Kings Head in Islington, couldn’t have foreseen that in the time between him writing it, and the date of its presentation, it would have become so prescient, with the developing narrative of what will happen to ‘The Sussexes’ (Harry and Meghan) unfolding even as I write. Though I suspect there’s rather more sympathy for any modern departing royals than the vitriol that more than 80 years of history has seen poured on the late Duke of Windsor.
The play is a two-hander which rather interestingly asks the question, ‘What if?’
The ‘What if?’ in this case being… What if Marlene Dietrich (Ramona von Pusch) had turned up to Edward VIII (Ashton Spear)’s home, Fort Belvedere, on the eve of his abdication?
Would she have tried to seduce him? Would she have tried to persuade him of the folly in his apparent infatuation with Hitler? Would she have tried to stop him abdicating? Would she have attempted to persuade him that, to mash up Kipling and The Dogs Trust, ‘A woman is only a woman, but an Empire is for life.’
Fanciful, you might think, but actually not so far of the mark as to be entirely incredible because (though I haven’t been able to verify the source) she DID, at least according to Elisha, turn up to Fort Belvedere on the eve of the abdication, intent on seeing the king, but was turned back at the gates.
That’s a real shame. History could have been so different as von Pusch’s Marlene is a vampish seductress who, both in the writing and the playing, is considerably more interesting than Spear’s Edward VIII who comes across as exactly what contemporary history would have us believe he was – a pleasure-seeking spoilt brat, wanting to have his regal cake and eat it.
Both characters have, of course, come down to us through a filter of propaganda and are loaded with the prejudices, and indeed the performances, through which we know them. They’re both iconically of their time. A time of black and white movies, and newsreels. But a time when in real life, for the elite few – and both certainly were part of that set – life was lived in vivid colour.
It’s something of a mystery to me then that both are made-up to look so washed out. Literally, though a bit half-heartedly, grey. This really doesn’t help the audience to see them as real people, which is a shame, because – especially in the second half of the play – there’s an understated passion from both the writing and the acting which could land so much better if given the opportunity.
The only observation I’d make about the writing is that it could do with a good dollop of humour in the first ten minutes. The Kings Head has the most uncomfortable seats in London (how I hope they’ll spend the money and get proper theatre seats when they move a couple of doors up the street later this year). With two actors and a shoestring budget, you need to capture us as an audience from the get-go, or the mind will soon wander to how annoying it is to hear the music from the bar. Humour’s a great, and tried and trusted way to get your audience relaxed and engaged.