A crisis in the monarchy as a royal prince wants to marry the divorcee with whom he’s been carrying on an adulterous affair. Can the royal family survive? No, not events of the past decade or so, but those leading up to the Abdication in 1936, explored in Royce Ryton’s 1972 play Crown Matrimonial.
It explores the impact those events had on the royal household as a family and how it tore them apart, forcing many to make the choice between loyalty to their loved ones and loyalty to the throne. Set in Queen Mary’s private sitting room on the first floor of Marlborough House, the agonies of the decision are played out.
As Queen Mary, Patricia Routledge is regal and frosty, but we can clearly see the toll taken on her by the crisis. Although not physically like the late queen, Miss Routledge makes such a reserved and stoic character sympathetic, even if we may not agree with her choices (informed as we are by modern morals). Against her, Rufus Wright makes for a spirited Edward VIII, trying to do the right thing but thwarted at all turns.
They are given excellent support by Richard Hansell as the Duke of York – the scene where he becomes king is particularly affecting, as he struggles with his stammer – and Emma Hardy as his wife Elizabeth, not at all the sweet creature we came to know in later years as The Queen Mother.
I was pleased to discover that the play was so even-handed, not painting anyone as being absolutely in the wrong – all the more so as it was written while The Queen Mother was still alive. Even Wallis Simpson comes out well, spoken warmly of by many of the protagonists and not portrayed as the rapacious adventuress she was all too often painted as.
It’s surprising that a play written in the 1970s about the events of 1936 can be so contemporary, but perhaps it is that history allows us to see current events in a new way. Certainly the question of whether it’s acceptable for the king (or future king) to marry a divorced woman still has resonance, as does what the wife of a king should and must be called. An added frisson the author could not have anticipated was the discussion of what constitutes an acceptable partnership to be married by the Church. The answers then, as now, were not so clear cut.
Tickets and tour dates
Crown Matrimonial is at the Churchill, Bromley, until Saturday (0870 060 6620) and then moves to Richmond Theatre, Richmond (0870 060 6651); Malvern Theatres (01684 892277); Theatre Royal, Brighton (0870 060 6650); and The Lowry, Salford Quays (0870 787 5780). It will then transfer into the West End