Wallace Simpson’s final days made relevant to everyone

The Last of the Duchess Hampstead Theatre 4/5

Thirty or so minutes in to Richard Eyre’s production and I don’t get it. Sure, Wallace Simpson is an interesting character (Madonna, who is making a film about her certainly seems to think so). There is also no denying that Anna Chancellor as journalist and heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood and Sheila Hancock as Maitre Blum, the sharp Parisian lawyer who stands between Blackwood and an interview with the Duchess, as expected fill the shoes of their characters fully and without compromise. But at first, the play seems simply a testament royalty and the pomp that surrounds it. This is something that, after the Royal Wedding, I can do without.

Come the second and longer part and I eat those words. A flustered and feckless yet glamourous heiress, a barely seen royal widow who becomes the stuff of legend and a defensive and mysterious lawyer- presented as raw ingredients in the first part- brew beautifully together in the second to produce a dark and simmering story where many questions are asked but -to the credit of the work- few are fully answered.

The truth for which Blackwood is searching becomes relative as the character of Diana Mosely (a real-life neighbour of the Duchess) is introduced and the story of the four difficult women making their path and having their way plays out. Rich dark comedy ensues in encounters between the women (with the exception of the Duchess who is seen only once) and also with the one man who plays assistant to Maitre Blum, who happens to be a fan of the bohemian Blackwood, played brilliantly by John Heffernan.

Although the nature of gossip is a theme present here, it is quickly and intelligently superseded by a more urgent one: How do we see a situation beyond our own version of reality and is it even possible? This play may have royalty as a subject but what this story represents is more relevant to the whole of society than it is comfortable to think about.