DIRECTOR Robert Graydon was determined to find “something royal” for his 2023 show at Yeovil’s Swan Theatre, and when it became clear that The King’s Speech was not available, he settled on Royce Ryton’s 1972 play Crown Matrimonial. It could hardly have been a happier choice.
The play, set in Queen Mary’s drawing room in Buckingham Palace in the fraught times surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII, has almost uncanny similarities to life in the royal court in the 21st century. Edward, known to the family as David, fell deeply in love with an American divorcee, and abandoned his throne to be with her. The country was in turmoil as an ineffective government and a hidebound church insisted on maintaining protocol. The ever-more insistent press was closing in.
Things have, of course, changed, but this story of duty versus personal pleasure, warring brothers, zombie governments and press intrusion has an extraordinary feeling of deja vu, and a real sense that the more it changes, the more it stays the same.
Ryton was an actor and writer who became fascinated by the conflicts between the public and private lives of royalty and politicians. His style is old-fashioned, and Crown Matrimonial is in many ways one of those classic static drawing room plays so criticised by “modern” (one act, no interval, out in time for a G&T or three) audiences. Happily, the director and his cast have respected the original, allowing deep characterisations and nuanced relationships to take the place of frantic movement and faux climaxes.
The cast is made up of Swan stalwarts and new, young actors – Graydon was delighted that so many of the younger members came forward for this show. Many of the audience will have at least a vague memory of the events, enlivened by the film of The King’s Speech. The play itself made history in the early 70s as the first to bring a (then) living royal onto the stage, in the person of Elizabeth, Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth) – who we all knew as the Queen Mother.
The play imagines various meetings in Buckingham Palace, and the scenes are separated by projections of the “real” characters, from newspapers of the time. This clever device constantly grounds the audience, heightening the tensions of the story.
The elephant in the room is Wallis Simpson, the cause of the crisis but the character who never appears. The unbending and unemotional Queen Mary is played with great panache and subletly by Vivienne Evans. She captures the conflict of this duty-bound woman who is unable to forgive her eldest son, and effectively banishes him from the country he once called home.
Ethan Taylor brings Ryton’s idealistic, highly intelligent, pioneering and passionately frustrated David/Edward to vibrant life, and congratulations not only for the style but the perfectly captured speech patterns. Liam Beard, another young actor, has to follow in the familiar footsteps of Colin Firth as the stammering Bertie, and he does it with great charm. Perhaps Rachael Alexander is a little too pugnacious as his wife Elizabeth, lacking a bit of the Queen Mum’s traditional sparkling charm, but she has the look and perhaps this is part of Ryton’s take on the woman who provided the backbone for King George VI.
Tanya Ogden and Sally Matthews are the delightful Ladies in Waiting and Georgia Holder brings a warmly instinctive affection to her role as David’s favourite sister, Mary. Mark Payne is advising barrister Walter Monckton, Carys Clayton is Alice of Gloucester and Jack Stevenson is John the devoted page.
This is a very impressive production of a fascinating play, carefully and thoroughly considered and point-perfect in atmosphere and style. Special congratulations to Mo Smith, whose hairdressing skills made the women look just like the contemporary photographs of the people they portrayed.