The life of a notorious socialite in The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson

The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson is the tale of Wallis Simpson, notorious American socialite, and features historical figures such as Noël Coward, King George V, Queen Mary and Hitler, all of whom play imperative roles in the development of the famous character we are more familiar with today.

Ruby Slippers Theatre, the production team behind The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson was co-founded in 1989 with a mission to present provocative theatre from the vanguard of English and French Canadian literary canon; illuminating diverse perspectives and social issues. They aim to develop works with a view to provoking dialogue, questioning status quo and thus earning Ruby Slippers Theatre a reputation for smart social satire.

With just 10 cast members playing around 25 characters, the show involves numerous quick costume, accent and scene changes. Cast member Raugi Yu, who graduated UBC’s BFA acting program in 1998 describes the opening scene in a manner of creative abstraction.

"The jewels being auctioned off in the beginning are actually played by people," said Yu. "There’s a Burmese ruby, a diamond from Africa, there are British accents, Indian accents …" These slightly fantastic elements are what the cast are hoping will set The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson apart from other historical biographic productions.

Directed by MFA directing grad Sarah Rodgers, The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson is a melange of fantasy and reality.

"It’s a very heightened world," said Yu on the manner of storytelling produced by Ruby Slippers Theatre. "There’s reality and some very real themes -- it’s based on real people, but also there are times when it’s just so out there."

Some students may remember the production from its successful run at the Telus Theatre on campus back in 2012. Hailed as a "bewitching mix of androgynous sensuality and unstable vulnerability," many of the cast and crew members from the UBC Theatre production are involved in the Ruby Slippers production. Returning to a show has a definite mix of benefits and challenges, as the actors are finding out in rehearsals.

Matt Reznek is reprising his role as Hitler, Ciano, a courtier and Lord Falderal in Ruby Slippers’ production this spring. "We have a more professional cast together now," said Reznek on the benefits of presenting the same show, three years on. "We have a little bit more experience under our belts, so we’ll be approaching things a little different, I think."

However, Reznek is also aware of the challenges such a repetition presents to himself as an actor. "I’m trying to keep it fresh, not falling back into old habits," he said. The role also requires him to play the piano (amongst other instruments) -- something Reznek has not played since graduation.

Xander Williams, Reznek’s fellow actor in both productions, is keen to bring his experiences in the theatre to a new perspective for his role as Noël Coward. Performing in Coward's plays since his first round of The Duchess, Williams is excited to bring new ideas and outlooks to his role.

With Simpson often heralded as the reason for Edward, Prince of Wales’s abdication, Yu is keen to stress the importance of sharing Simpson’s story.

"The story is: Wallis is important, what she goes through, what happens to her, what she’s willing to do," said Yu. "It’s kind of the love story of the century, and it’s kind of cool that the play is based in fact and has some fictional moments to hold all the storytelling together."

The script was developed especially for the performance at UBC in 2012, with the director taking two versions of the play, from the 90s and 2011, and cutting them together in an entirely new script. Ruby Slippers’ performances will be the second production of The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson, and an exciting opportunity to see the reunion of a well-established, largely UBC-based cast, several of whom have taken on new responsibilities beside their respective roles, such as choreography and assistant directing.

"It’s a magical romp through a very controversial romance," said Williams in summary of the play. "A romance that brought the American and British nations into conflict. It’s a unique third-party perspective that I find really fun, filled with lightness and love."

The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson is playing April 7-18 at The Cultch. Tickets available online.