Review: The Duchess aka Wallis Simpson by Theatre UBC

Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths’ The Duchess aka Wallis Simpson is the story of an infamous woman for whom Edward VIII abdicated his throne (paving the way for his stammering brother George VI). While it is a distinctly contemporary work, its substance, style, and structure would seem to borrow the framework from Shakespeare’s history plays.


Like Shakespeare, it charts, embellishes, and speculates on a chapter of the British Royal Family and those in their orbit. Similarly, it uses a small cast performing multiple roles in a series of rapid, blending scenes.  It breaks the fourth wall, gives soliloquies to even minor characters, integrates elements of mythology, is admittedly anachronistic, and even begins with an invocation from our narrators, like Henry V.


These are all very good things, as the deep parallels create a familiar format for telling a story such as Wallis Simpson’s.


Foreground, Pippa Johnstone and Kenton Klassen. Background, Alexander Keurvorst. Photo by Nancii Bernard

Our guides, who conversationally address the audience, are the titular Wallis Simpson and effete playwright Noel Coward. Simpson, played with frankness and gusto by Pippa Johnstone, is a complex figure who hungers for so many things – power, acceptance, escape, love – and cuts a brash path to achieve them.


Her unchecked ambition is balanced by Coward’s feline aloofness and wry humour. In the role is Alexander Keurvorst (almost unrecognizable from his previous turn as Macbeth), he displays not only an endearing, impish panache, but also great musical aptitude, singing and playing songs of the era on piano, ukelele, and saxophone.


The duo leads us through a sprawling historic narrative, which begins with Wallis’ tutelage in secret, sexual techniques by Chinese temptresses. The bit could easily come off as racist, but director Sarah Rodgers skirts this by making clear the play’s worldview is filtered through the era’s patronizing, Imperialist prism.


The Chinese temptresses and all remaining female roles in the play are performed by just four women: Georgia Beaty, Emma Johnson, Tracy Schut, and Courtney Shields. All must frequently and rapidly swap outfits and accents as they flit between demanding roles. Particularly memorable are Beaty’s taciturn, sour-faced Queen and Schut’s dreamy-eyed Debutante.


Abandoned by her first husband in China, Wallis returns to America and makes her way through a flamboyant series of men (played out as a clever dance routine). This features the male retinue of quick-changers: Alen Dominguez, Joel Garner, and Matt Reznek (also Johnson, taking a drag turn as a Colonel Klink-inspired Nazi). The standout here is Reznek’s portrayal of Hitler, which somehow manages to simultaneously be accurate, comic, and just a little chilling.


Georgia Beaty, Pippa Johnstone. Photo by Nancii Bernard

Wallis eventually finds a wallflower husband who whisks her away to Britain where she elbows her way into high society. Here she gains the attention and affection of incumbent King Edward, played with wide-eyed sincerity by Kenton Klassen. Their relationship (as it is too tenuous to comfortably call love) has dramatic repercussions for themselves, England, and the world at large, which are soon spilled across the stage.


A final note must be given to Michael Bock’s beautiful art deco set, which channels Elizabethan undertones through a thrust arrangement, ringing the audience around three sides of the stage and allowing the action to unfold in their midst.


The Duchess trades the battlefields of France for the salons of London and dented plate mail for glittering gowns, but beneath these superficial differences are the same elements that make Shakespeare’s histories so thrilling: towering figures struggling with conflict, duty, and passion, whose actions and decisions shaped the world in which we live.

The Duchess runs until October 6 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts’ Telus Studio Theatre.

Click here for tickets & information.

Categories: Musings