Most stage productions have a designated moment a few minutes into the show at which latecomers are admitted. In the case of Nicholas Wright’s play this point is literally the last of the Duchess: punters enter as the Duchess of Windsor exits after her sole, brief opening scene. For the play is not about her life in exile with and then her viduity after the death of the former Edward VIII, but about…
In the direct narrative sense, it is about the tussle between the Duchess’s fiercely protective and possibly wickedly possessive lawyer Maître Suzanne Blum (Sheila Hancock) and Lady Caroline Blackwood, dispatched to Paris in 1980 to write a profile of the Duchess but soon persuaded that Blum’s iron grip on the household was more interesting.
Thematically, it is about portraiture: not only the truth that Blackwood might or might not attain in her piece (which later became the book, unpublished until Blum’s death in 1993, from which Wright has made this skilful adaptation), but the truth of any second-order account of a person: Blackwood herself had been intimately portrayed in oils by her first husband Lucian Freud and in poetry by her third, Robert Lowell.
On a tonal level, it is also about snobbery, what we expect of those of elevated social status and what we may forgive in them. Anna Chancellor’s Blackwood spends the second act knocking back vodka, growing ever more rambunctious; the Windsors’ circle of acquaintance is represented by Angela Thorne as Diana Mosley (née Mitford), whose remarks show us how much vileness we British are prepared to excuse in someone well-bred who makes us smile. Richard Eyre, who directs with his usual scrupulousness and quiet incisiveness, describes the play’s subject as “snobbery with violence”.
Chancellor relishes the drunkenness (although most of her slips of the tongue are scripted), but she gets to the heart of a character who has profound experience of the social dimensions to her assignment. Hancock shows Blum’s tendency to be overawed by titles but also her ramrod-straight professional principles regardless of power dynamics. And Wright assuredly banishes the bland aftertaste left by his last adaptation, Rattigan’s Nijinsky, a few months ago.