Of all live theatre variations, one – person pieces are potentially the most challenging to make succeed. Without the luxury of on – stage peer interaction, the lone performer must rely entirely on their own talent and timing, the writer’s script, the director’s vision, solid technical support, and the audience’s ability to sustain belief.
Notable solo works include ‘A Different Way Home’ (by Jimmy Chinn), ‘Shirley Valentine’ (by Willy Russell), ‘I Am My Own Wife’ (by Doug Wright) and ‘The Book Club’ (by Roger Hall). Written, directed and acted by Chris Ioan Roberts (with assistant direction by Alex Rand), ‘Dead Royal’ is both a fascinating and confronting character study, which must be added to this classic list.
With training from the Victorian College Of The Arts, the young Australian has since developed a name on the London theatre circuit in such shows as ‘Crossed’ (for La Mama), ‘Home Economics’ (for The Store Room) and ‘Tongues’ (for the Tristan Bates Theatre). Roberts also works for the Royal National Theatre.
Set in 1981, ‘Dead Royal’ is about a bachelorette party planned by Wallis Simpson for Lady Diana Spencer. Roberts plays both cultural extremes to the hilt, and several secondary characters referenced off – stage, too. With a running time of only forty – five minutes, the story’s narrative journey still manages to cover a lot of important ground.
This searing comic – drama states in no uncertain terms, that royal betrothal is never a relationship between two people. Such a bond means coping with your partner’s immediate and extended families, as well as national and global media vivisection, all non – stop on a daily basis.
Jumping from Southern Belle to Sloane Ranger, Roberts also injects his women with a certain degree of knowing.
Simpson was a brash and outspoken American socialite. Twice married, her third partner was the former King of England. Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, even abdicated from his throne to marry her. Their relationship even created major news headlines world – wide. Further, the scandalous outfall made Simpson a public pariah, right up until her death at the age of eighty – nine in 1986.
On the flip – side of the coin, Spencer was being groomed to be the perfect trophy wife. In Roberts’ eyes, though she may have lived a relatively sheltered existence, the woman was acutely aware of her own brand potential. After all, Spencer would be joining one of the most famous, wealthy and powerful families on the planet.
Each lived at opposite ends of the social spectrum. Yet, with tape recorders in hand at certain points in the play, it seems that both women were also working on their respective memoirs, ready to cash in.
Aided by Roberts’ acerbic wit, Simpson, driven by personal experience, wanted to warn Diana not to marry. That they never meet within the context of the story, reinforces the impending tragedy to come.
With a thin frame and delicate features, Roberts employs physical androgyny to his advantage. Reminding this reviewer of a youthful David Bowie, he gives a detailed performance, as full of light and shade as it is multi – layered. Peeled back like an onion, Roberts also showcases a gripping example of meta – realism. Is he an actor gender – bending as Simpson and Spencer, or as a devoted fan of both, working out in the hallucinatory privacy of his apartment?
Smart production design by Robin Soutar reinforces this consideration.
The set consists only of elegant if deliberately worn furniture; there are no enclosing walls. Therefore, as audience members, we are almost viewing this world front and centre through an invisible glass prison.
Lighting by Alex Hopkins and sound composition from Duncan Boyce both allow for smooth breaks and quick changes between scenes. Stunning costume design by Dinu Bodiciu masterfully defines each character, as do Sally Tynan’s wigs.
‘Dead Royal’ is a bravura example of theatre living on the high wire of performance art. A show for acquired tastes in mind, it works either as a stand – alone project or potentially as part of any international arts festival.