It’s the old romcom cliché: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl marries into the suffocating institution to which boy belongs, girl divorces boy. Yes, it’s the rise, fall and aftermath of the marriage of Charles and Diana.
Along the way, we will meet significant members of the political elite – Thatcher, Major, Blair – who are all played with an acute imitative accuracy. Asterion Theatre are respectful: they make sure that never to descend into caricature or cruel parody. Nor, for that matter, do they thrust a political or royalist agenda upon their audience. They don’t claim some right to assert personal views of the couple’s situation, but instead choose to present them both in a light no more sympathetic than unsympathetic.
The acting is consistently strong across the board and the cast’s attention to detail does justice to a script that is written with intelligence and wit. It verges on poetic in form, adhering to some quasi-Shakespearean rhetoric in which a threat to punch someone becomes having ‘your pearly whites strewn over these double yellows’. With subtle callbacks to Shakespeare’s plays within the dialogue itself, this is obviously the tradition in which they want to embed themselves. In fact, this is a piece that celebrates British culture as a whole, and if the Shakespearean allusions are too subtle, then the musical interludes in which they render their own versions of Radiohead, Oasis, Blur and The Verve put that to bed.
These, it has to be said, were gratuitous and annoying and were not the only fault of the piece. Asterion have at times missed the point at which intelligent dialogue becomes highfalutin, even superior. This is not to say that they have to hold our hands – the risk of condescension looms large on the other end of the spectrum – but there is a line between hand-holding and simply checking the audience are still with you. Demanding that we keep up amidst disorientating political spiel begins to come across as a little pompous.
Political and royalist agenda may be neatly evaded, but the show is not without some stance, indicting the journalists, who, in a moment of existential clarity, indulge in flagrant exposition: ‘I’m ashamed of us – what we have become. Will we ever leave her alone?’ This is not as ham-fisted as the moralisation gets. We began so well, with gestures towards Kate Middleton implicit in such lines as, ‘No matter how much you suffer or confess, they will always be concerned with Diana’s dress.’ By the end, however, the implicit turns explicit as the cast launch into Blur’s ‘The Universal’ – anchored around the lyric ‘Yes it really really really could happen’ – and holding up magazines depicting Middleton’s smiling face. It was enough to make me miss the pompous subtlety of yore.
War of the Waleses is an interesting assessment of a complex situation and a sophisticated piece of work. Just be ready for it to tell you that.