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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS
at Hampstead Theatre

ROYALTY IN ABSENTIA
By EDWIN WILSON

  Sheila Hancock and Anna Chancellor/ Ph: Johan Persson

The Last of the Duchess at the Hampstead Theatre is a tour de force for two formidable actresses. Fortunately, director Richard Eyre has found just the right pair in Sheila Hancock and Anna Chancellor. The time is 1980 and the setting is the chateau provided by the French to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the Bois de Boulogne park in Paris. Beginning in 1972, when the Duke died, the Duchess became not only increasingly ill, but more and more of recluse. The scene of the play is the once elegant, high-ceilinged drawing room of the chateau, now gone slightly to seed.

The play by Nicholas Wright is based on the book of the same name by Lady Caroline Blackwood. Lady Caroline (Chancellor) has come to the chateau hoping to interview the Duchess for an article that would accompany a photograph of the Duchess taken by Lord Snowden to appear in a London newspaper. When Lady Caroline first arrives she is left alone in the drawing room. Falling asleep, she has a brief, amusing dream in which she encounters a younger version of the Duchess. Soon, she is brusquely awakened by the arrival of Maitre Suzanne Blum, a steely, imperious woman who, we learn, has previously represented various film stars and even a film company. That was in the past, however; Blum now has a different client, one who consumes all her time and resources. Before he died, Blum’s husband, also a lawyer, had represented the Duke and Duchess, and when he was gone, Maitre Blum became the Windsor’s primary legal representative.

Confronting Blum, Lady Caroline comes to realize that she will never actually see the Duchess in person. During the course of the play Lady Caroline also becomes convinced that Blum, played with great hauteur and finesse by Hancock, is holding the Duchess captive in her own home. The purpose, Lady Caroline believes, is so that she can exploit her client financially. Not only has Blum made herself sole executor of the estate, she appears to be selling off valuable jewels and other objects belonging to the Duchess. Lady Caroline is bolstered in this belief by a visit to the chateau of Lady Diana Mosley (Angela Thorne), a long-time close friend of the Duchess, who is convinced of Blum’s treachery.

For all of her obstinacy, Blum does have a weakness: blind worship of anyone belonging to royalty or the nobility. The Duchess, for example, can do no wrong in her eyes. The accusations against the Duchess of greed, snobbery and vanity (innumerable face lifts) Blum insists are all false. When Lady Caroline realizes there will be no interview or photo of the Duchess, she takes a different tack; she suggests that Lord Snowden photograph Blum, wearing a long, black dress similar to the one the Duchess was to have worn. Blum is thrilled with the prospect, almost giddy with schoolgirl delight.

In the end, the play is not a full-blown drama, but more like an engrossing two-hander. There are other characters present: not only Lady Diana, but Blum’s young assistant Michael Block (John Heffernan) who also attempts to help Lady Caroline. When asked why he assists both sides, he confesses that he has a fatal attraction to powerful women. Throughout the play these two assertive combatants go back and forth at each other like two top-flight tennis players in a series of thrilling rallies in a finals match at Roland Garros.

It is not only the absent figure of the Duchess who hovers over the action, but also the background stories of the characters involved. In real life, Lady Caroline was not only titled – and the daughter of a member of the Guinness clan – but her first husband was the painter Lucian Freud, for whom she posed in some of his most famous early paintings, and her second husband was the poet Robert Lowell. For her part, Lady Diana was married to a Guinness heir herself before she married Oswald Mosley, the notorious Nazi sympathizer and leader of the Fascist party in Britain.

The play stands on it own, of course, and is skillfully written, directed and performed. As such, it is a thoroughly entertaining coup de theatre. Even so, as an afterthought, one cannot escape the sense that in their actual lives, all three female characters – Blum, Blackwood, and Mosley – were participants in high drama.

 


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