An air of hoped-for controversy hangs over Snoo Wilson’s “HRH,” for which the producers should be grateful. This year’s second theatrical assault on Edward, Duke of Windsor, and his American wife, Wallis Simpson (after the summer’s hapless musical “Always”), the new show is as cheesy as the earlier was inane. The name of the play (the initials stand for Her Royal Highness) may evoke Princess Diana, but the comparison ends there: No amount of notoriety by appropriation can disguise a dud. “HRH” may not be the worst major play of the year, but it’s without a doubt the tackiest.
“Always” was jeered in June for its benign treatment of one of the more peculiar Anglo-American liaisons offered up by history. No such kindnesses here: So keen is Wilson to demonstrate gloves-off daring that the couple’s financially motivated Nazi sympathies are not just made explicit, they are repeated (and joked about) so often that one half expects Corin Redgrave’s Edward to come on in jackboots. Instead England’s royal prince is seen passing World War II in his post-abdication position as governor general of the Bahamas, strumming the banjo and sparring with his high-cheeked, Baltimore-born wife (Amanda Donohoe).
She in turn spends $ 100 a week on her hair and pines for a more glamorous post, while attempting to put aside the “condensed hatred” of the monarchy toward her. (On that point, Diana does come to mind.) A diversion of sorts is provided by the murder of moneyed island hotshot Sir Harry Oakes, whose putative killer, local bon viveur Alfred de Marigny, is someone for whom Wallis may once have had “the hots.” In fact, the blame was subsequently found to lie with Oakes’ partner, Harold Christie, a third figure mentioned but not shown in this very underpopulated play.
What is shown are the none-too-credible exchanges of a thoroughly unlikable couple, notwithstanding a belated soliloquy of sexual fever for Wallis that looks like a last-ditch effort to rouse a slumbering audience. Lest his revisionism be said to have run amok, Wilson starts backpedaling in the second act, introducing a note of mawkishness to persuade us that we should care. An ace production might enliven the repartee, but Simon Callow’s staging is as flat as Christopher Woods’ tropical design is cheap, and the director does Redgrave (whose stage work elsewhere in recent years has been exemplary) no favors at all.
Barking at a stuffed dog and talking to his shoes, Redgrave’s Edward is a dim , even creepy eccentric with oddly colored orange hair. Donohoe at least brings a commanding sneer to her character, though it’s a shame about her wildly off-the-mark accent, which sounds Australian. It’s a measure of the level of subtlety of “HRH” that she talks of being “so very very happy” with an expression to freeze the blood. The look is one the actors may well find meeting them across the footlights as the playwright’s apparent ill will is more than matched by the house.