The popularity of Netflix’s The Crown and the enormous media attention around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018 demonstrate that there is still plenty of interest in the British Royal Family in the 21st century. Crown Matrimonial could even be considered a precursor to The Crown, taking as its focus an earlier Royal scandal: the abdication of King Edward VIII.
Written in 1972, Royce Ryton’s script was remarkable at the time for its depiction of a living member of the Royal Family, Queen Elizabeth (Jess Wake), during the 1936 abdication of her brother-in-law King Edward VIII (Douglas Spafford). King Edward’s decision to marry Wallis Simpson caused unprecedented controversy for the modern Royals not because she was common, not because she was American, but because she was divorced and twice-over, too.
The play is a combination of quiet, political tension and family drama as all members of the Royal Family try their hand at convincing David not to marry Wallis and not to abdicate. Director Chris Searle maintains the prim and proper demeanour of the times with curtsying ladies-in-waiting (Beryl Ayers and Helene Courtney) and copious glasses of sherry overtop the heavy considerations of love, religion, and duty. James Searle’s set design was well-balanced between excessive guilted gold and refined elegance. The Tiffany blue colour palette was a good backdrop for Anne Kintominas’s detailed costuming.
While King Edward was the central consideration of the action, Queen Mary (Allanah Jarman) was a strong central figure as the voice of morality and national duty. Jarman carried the character well even as she grew wearied by the stress of media and political attention. Jess Wake equally stood out from the cast in her depiction of Elizabeth, Duchess of York as she defended her small family against King Edward’s abdication. Against these women’s compelling arguments for sacrifice and consideration for both the family and the Royal institution, Spafford’s King Edward was stiff and unyielding. Many modern audience members would probably be convinced of his individualistic appeal to marry freely, despite his titles and responsibilities.
With such a loggerheads on stage in the 70s, who could have predicted the Royal controversies of the following decades? And seeing this production again in 2021, one wonders whether modern times have greatly changed the debates around power, privilege, freedom, and responsibility. For those who love either the gossip of society’s upper echelons or the dense intricacies between Royalty and British politics, Crown Matrimonial provides plenty to chew over.
Crown Matrimonial is running at the Guild Theatre from February 5th – March 6th
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