Writer and director Elliot Douglas’ new gift to the St. Andrews stage is His Duchess, a curious two-act play which explores the world of an odd and theatrical woman. As the Duchess obsessively pays tribute to the Jazz Age in which she is mentally bound, the show is accompanied by Ella Fitzgerald and Emily Dickinson, cleverly integrated into her own conflicting thought and passions.
His Duchess is interesting as a script, as it doesn’t focus around a particular plot. The “journey” the audience is taken on in the course of the show is not through a story-arc, but instead a gradual understanding of the Duchess’s character. This makes the script incredibly difficult to assess impartially, because it means the audience’s investment in the show is based solely upon the performance of the cast. With a poor performance, this script has the potential to be a disaster, but thankfully, that was not the case with the show I had the pleasure to witness. I enjoyed the script’s more subtle absurdity and the comedic transformation as the show went on. With every tragic discovery made about the Duchess’s past, something almost painful emerged through the humor. By the end of the show, jokes or jabs that once received laughs were met with a shocked and solemn silence. While I feel the script could be cut-down or condensed, and some of the unneeded exposition removed, I very much enjoyed the premise and the freedom it gave the actors to explore their characters.
One weaker element of the script was the excessive use of profanity, which more than one of the actors seemed a bit awkward using. It wasn’t extraordinarily obvious, but it didn’t sound natural and it may have been worth substituting some of those words for the sake of the actor’s comfort. I didn’t find it necessary, as neither of the characters who used it seemed particularly vulgar, and with good acting, anger or frustration can be conveyed in ways that don’t require swearing.
Minus a short scene near the end, the entire production takes place on a single, heavily decorated set. I would like to praise the set design for its lived-in feel, which brought a special kind of intimacy to the audience’s experience. Some less-obvious prop placement gave just the right amount of suggestion to the show’s true setting, and sound cues were appropriately timed
As I stated earlier, the success of this show hinged entirely on the actors. While the minor characters, Miss Smith and Mr. Brown (played by Rosie Beech and Matthew Lansdell, respectively), came off as a bit flat, there were no major flaws in the acting. I would have liked to have seen a bit more depth from both actors, something I am sure they are capable of if given enough time and appropriate direction. It is extraordinarily difficult to bring a personality with such peculiarity down onto an empathetic plane with the audience, and I can write nothing but praise for the performance of Alice Wilkinson (Duchess), whose genuine eccentricity truly brought the main character to life. A flawed perception of reality, chosen or not, is something most audiences will have difficulty relating to. But emotional turmoil, conflicted feelings, and insecurity touch all of us in one way or another, and while the Duchess may have been delusional, she was still human, and it was up to the actor to remind us of that. A decent actor can provide emotional depth, a good actor can provide multiple types of emotional depth, and an excellent actor can convey them all at once. Alice Wilkinson is an excellent actor.
Altogether, I was incredibly impressed by His Duchess, especially its ability to guide you into the madness experienced by the main character. Douglas took a lot of risks with this script, which is both scary and exciting from the perspective of a theatre enthusiast, and I applaud his more daring choices. With some trimming, and a dependable cast, His Duchess could better itself into an even more exciting production.