July 1981. Paris. On the eve of her wedding to Charles, Prince of Wales, a 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer arrives at the home of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, to celebrate the last morsels of her dwindling pre-marital freedom and muse on the fate that lies ahead of her in Dead Royal, at fortyfivedownstairs.
Chris Ioan Roberts’ solo show is a dark, satirical tragicomedy that takes aim at the royal phenomenon and our toxic cultural obsession with it. Taking Diana and Wallis as its case studies, Dead Royal examines the corrosive effect that this life of hereditary spotlight and relentless internal power play has on the ‘civilian’ women who get drawn into it.
Roberts’ trash-talking characterisations are both savage and severe. Wallis is a brash and bigoted relic, with all the anachronistic charm of an antebellum era plantation owner, while Diana’s clipped eloquence provides a perverse juxtaposition to the sexually graphic imagery that she pontificates.
Despite the considerable coarseness of Roberts’ caricatures, there is still humanity and vulnerability to be found in each of them. In the breaths and pauses that punctuate their respective monologues, we glimpse moments of contemplative quiet and stillness in which both characters silently struggle to maintain the practiced balletic restraint of enforced royal decorum – a physically volatile state that threatens to snap at any moment.
The warped warble of Duncan Boyce’s sound design, which heavily utilises the uniquely familiar distortion of overworn cassette tape, lends a surreal aural frame to this royal romp.
Robin Soutar’s production design is sleek and effective. The set is simplistic and thoughtful – an isolated square of pristine white, floating in darkness, upon which this little slice of hyper-stylised reality is displayed like a perverse, living museum exhibit. The fragile sterility of this white-washed world is ultimately unsustainable and is quickly polluted by eruptions of savage colour; toxic yellows and fluorescence pinks that quickly infest the entire space.
Through the eyes of these two iconic women, Dead Royal paints a thoroughly uncomfortable family portrait of one of the most thoroughly uncomfortable families in the world.