No spoiler alert is needed to accompany the observation that Wallis Simpson, the eponymous Duchess of Windsor, is onstage in Nicholas Wright’s quietly fascinating new play for five minutes max. But then Wright is too canny a dramatist to have done anything so dull as standard bio-drama. “The Last of the Duchess” turns Caroline Blackwood’s celebrated account of her attempt to interview the American who caused King Edward VIII’s abdication into a vivid study of writers’ ethics and the subjective nature of truth. The surprising result is tart, taut and increasingly tense.
Hints are dropped from the start in Richard Eyre’s elegant production. The translucent walls of Anthony Ward’s handsome set not only provide tantalizing glimpses of the corridors and stairs to the elderly duchess’s unreachable room in her grand home in the Bois de Boulogne, they suggest the notion of seeing through something and, possibly, someone.
That someone, as it turns out, isn’t the duchess but her lawyer, Maitre Suzanne Blum (a magnificently imperious Sheila Hancock), who controls the elderly and reclusive duchess’s affairs and reputation, not to mention the household, with impregnable hauteur. She may have acceded to Blackwood’s request for an interview for the Sunday Times but, paradoxically, she is ruthlessly determined to shield her client from vulgar press intrusion.
It’s hardly surprising that novelist-turned profile-writer Blackwood (a riveting Anna Chancellor) is keen to capture her prey. The formerly publicity-courting divorcee was one of the progenitors of 20th century celebrity, conducting a scandalous affair that led to a constitutional crisis as seen in “The King’s Speech” and Madonna’s “W.E.” And that’s without the famous partying, jewelry, facelifts and fascist sympathies.
Blackwood is equally contradictory, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who rejected her background by marrying the painter Lucien Freud and then the poet Robert Lowell. Chancellor imbues her with energetic, high-handed privilege and a mix of zest for life and hard-won (and hard-drinking) cynicism.
The shrewdness of both women makes them keen adversaries. After a brief, hallucinatory opening, the two of them stalk one another before embarking upon Eyre’s sharply paced faceoff, with the initially amused tone between them souring from cordial to acidic.
Caught between them is young Michael Bloch (John Heffernan in an exquisitely judged performance of effete tact) whose loyalty to Blum (his boss) is torn by his fascination with Blackwood. His indiscretion allows secrets to be uncovered that fuel Blackwood’s mounting suspicions. Is Blum deifying or defying the duchess? What is happening to the jewel collection? Is she abusing her position and, possibly, the duchess herself?
By the end of the brief first act, everything goes up a gear with a death threat and a change of direction. Blackwood is setting her sights not on the absent duchess but on the monstrous Blum.
The plot thickens with the arrival of an old friend. Aging, partially deaf Lady Mosley, wife of the openly fascist Sir Oswald, is armed with ancient knowledge, a book of her own about the duchess and, thanks to Wright’s wit, a stream of zinging one-liners delivered with deliciously scene-stealing grandeur by Angela Thorne.
Because Wright so cunningly keeps shifting the audience’s sympathies, both roles offer a ceaseless flow of opportunities for the actors. Hancock deploys an immaculate French accent and has enormous fun with the woman accurately described by Blackwood as “a howling snob.” She displays icy intelligence, and her physical composure lends her real dignity.
An ebullient Chancellor, meanwhile, ricochets entertainingly between lofty sarcasm and emotionally charged indignation as she investigates the highly suspicious situation.
The play’s most welcome quality, and the one which ought to earn it future West End life, is its late-flowering passion. The deeper Blackwood digs — and the drunker she gets — the fiercer Chancellor grows. Both her and Blum’s defense hit upon unexpected personal truths. How mixed are the motives behind the withholding or revealing of the “truth” of another life? Can a writer ever be objective? What price reputation?