Attention on the British royals escalated to mania for the second time this year when, following the birth of the third royal baby, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle tied the knot earlier this month to much fanfare. Yet, while the millennial British royals have seized the spotlight from their elders, the drama that enveloped the House of Windsor in the 1990s was of a far less family-friendly variety. Although I was only 11 at the time, I recall when Princess Diana died not because I knew anything about her, or about the British monarchy for that matter, but because I was attending a sleepover party the night of her death and the adults at the party were mesmerized by the media circus unfolding on television. While living in London last year during the airing of “Diana: In Her Own Words,” it became readily apparent to me that many people remain enamored with the late Princess Diana yet, for millennials and younger generations, she will exist as little more than a footnote in history. For this reason, James Clements’ new play, The Diana Tapes, feels both dated and depressing – a story about a woman who was so keen to shape her public persona and tell the world about her suffering yet is now fading from social memory altogether.
The Diana Tapes recounts the writing and publication of “Diana, Her True Story” by Andrew Morton in 1992, which, when published, created ripples in British society. The book revealed that the fairy tale marriage between Prince Charles and Diana was far from a happy one, and it was later revealed that Diana supplied Andrew Morton with the intimate details that contributed heavily to the book’s success. The Diana Tapes depicts how Diana’s friend Dr. James Colthurst approached Morton to write the book and gave him tape recordings of Diana answering personal questions drafted by Morton. While Morton gleefully jumps into writing the novel, he and his enthusiastic American publisher, Michael O’Mara, are shaken when Morton’s phone is tapped and his office ransacked by unknown third parties (presumably with ties to the royal family). These dramatic moments are interspersed with intimate scenes between Diana and Dr. Colthurst as she shares private details about her life and marriage on tape, including about her self-harm and Charles’ affair. Although Morton and O’Mara are concerned with little more than the financial gain that Diana’s book will bring, the Princess of Wales cleverly uses the publication to start a social narrative painting herself as a victimized young mother who wants nothing more than to care for her family and for the people of United Kingdom – for Diana, the book is a cleansing, a confessional and a means to sway public opinion.
For younger audience members, the timeline of Clements’ play is unclear – covering events that occurred sometime during Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles and ending with an allusion to her life after their separation. The dual narrative of Morton writing his novel based on the tapes and Diana recording her story provides a nice balance between somber oration and tantalizing action, yet the play feels incomplete. For example, Morton and O’Mara experience several incidents suggesting that someone close to the royal family knows about and wants to prevent the book from being released, or at the very least wants to know its contents, but these events and suspicions are never fully fleshed out and therefore feel less urgent or shocking. At a brisk 70 minutes, the show features the scandalous revelations in the book (i.e., Diana’s self harm and bulimia) but, in focusing on these Enquirer-style headlines, the audience is presented with little about Diana’s youth and marriage to indicate how she came to such a dark place in her relationship with Charles. Moreover, the play includes far too much of posh middleman James Colthurst whose only role, aside from ferrying the tapes back and forth between Diana and Morton, seems to have been working the word “deniability” into nearly every conversation.
However, these critical observations aside, at its core, The Diana Tapes is a solid and engrossing tale about the humanity behind the royal veneer and the great lengths to which people will go to craft and preserve their image. Director Wednesday Sue Derrick does a lovely job of staging and transitioning the set between sequences, calling attention to the emotion of the characters and utilizing wordless storytelling to forward the plot. Designer Madeline Wall’s multifaceted and transformative set design allows for fluid movement between scenes and gives the illusion that the space has significantly changed from scene to scene. This is aided by Wall’s costume design, which evokes 1990s design elements while also mimicking the elegance of Princess Diana’s wardrobe – not an easy feat on a limited indie theatre budget.
The small ensemble is comprised of James Clements, serving double duty in this show as both the writer and English journalist Andrew Morton, Jorge Morales Pico as level headed Dr. James Colthurst, Sam Hood Adrain as gregarious American publisher Michael O’Mara and Ana Cristina Schuler as the Princess of Wales. For this predominately American cast, getting the cadence and accents correct for their respective characters proves challenging. Although playing an Englishman, Clements’ accent occasionally slips into a Scottish dialect, and Jorge Morales Pico has trouble maintaining his British accent as well (although the posh accent is slightly more forgiving for a non-native speaker). Adrain does not need to worry about maintaining such an artifice, but he comes on quite strong with an unpleasant exuberance. Adrain comes into himself in the second half of the play, however, and ultimately delivers an enjoyable and robust performance. Clements and Adrain play well off one another, building up a casual banter befitting of colleagues. Unfortunately, Pico and Clements never achieve the same familiarity, which is problematic given that Morton and Colthurst were meant to be friends. Pico plays Colthurst quite stiffly, perhaps to convey Colthurst’s upper class upbringing, but this stiffness comes across as unnatural. Some of this unnatural temperament can be attributed to Clements’ writing. At times the dialogue is stilted and artificial – far too formal for everyday interactions (yes, even in England). Despite these failings, Schuler does a marvelous job portraying Princess Diana – capturing her playfulness, her charm, her melancholy and the gentleness that drew so many people to her.
The Diana Tapes has the distinction of being both oddly relevant in light fo recent events and overly nostalgic, relying on the audience’s familiarity with the iconic figure at the heart of the tale but also revealing a bit about Diana’s non-public persona. Several strongly constructed scenes depict a heartbroken and flawed, but resilient, woman – a human side of Diana that the tabloids and press rarely cared to cover. For Anglophiles with a soft-spot for the late Princess of Wales, The Diana Tapes proves a interesting look back on the drama, gossip and tragedy that unfolded during the last few years of her life.