We have seen the British monarchy change a great deal in the last 30 years. While the Queen remains as constant as the Pole Star, the rest of the family live their lives, and negotiate their duties, in all sorts of different ways: in romantic terms, we are all familiar with their various recent separations, divorces, affairs, mismatches and misunderstandings. However, none of our Royals' chaotic personal arrangements have been so constitutionally cataclysmic as Edward VIII's passion for Wallis Simpson. Britain’s flag-waving fervour during the Royal Wedding, the Jubilee and the birth of Prince George has provoked Josh Spear to respond with his account of this most dramatic (and messy) of Royal love stories. It is certainly a rich and edifying subject, though Spear’s treatment should more properly be termed theatre than opera.

David Jones (Edward VIII) and Caroline Kennedy (Wallis Simpson) © Claire Shovelton
David Jones (Edward VIII) and Caroline Kennedy (Wallis Simpson)
© Claire Shovelton

That Woman consists of three scenes: one, conjuring the atmosphere in Britain just before abdication; a second, featuring Edward's justification of his actions in an impassioned soliloquy; and the third sees Wallis in later life, alone with her memories. Of the three, the central scene is undoubtedly the strongest in this production, in which Spear also directs. David Jones, playing the former king, delivers his wonderful performance to a camera, his face turned away from us: we watch his face on the screen hanging above the stage, and hear his words relayed through a speaker. Quick changes of light allow Jones to portray other characters as well as Edward, changing his voice and intonation with rapid precision, giving us a spellbinding evocation both of a fascinating character, and of the personal, social and political pressures piling upon him. Edward’s choice to reject his royal destiny is balanced by Diana’s plaintive cries of what she could have been “if she weren’t a Princess” – Spear reminding us that noble renunciation could have been possible for her too, if she had only had the courage.

Spear’s music is a tessellation of scratchy sampled sounds, interweaving scraps of period news reports, excerpts from various interviews (such as the notorious Diana interview), and a deliciously grainy, muffled Edith Piaf singing Non, je ne regrette rien, which becomes something of a theme as it is repeated with increasing fervour through the final scene. Evocative and atmospheric, Spear’s music creates an exuberantly busy sound world in which there is very little focus on any sung vocal line. Caroline Kennedy has a beautiful voice, but is thus given very little opportunity to use it: her final repetitions of “That man, that man” should be haunting and poignant, but are in fact just strike the audience as dull; with so little singing else, they seem like mannered interventions into another work, not part of an operatic whole.

The real problem with this production, however, is the profusion of technological toys, which soon become the tail firmly wagging the dog, and, if you’ll forgive the extended metaphor, then biting the dog repeatedly. The camera, when it wasn’t gleefully informing us that it was “Sensor cleaning!”, went on strike several times, including for most of the third scene. With admirable panache, everyone carried on as if nothing had happened. The problem was, something had happened – and many performance details were consequently lost. Even without these problems, the way the technology was used was, in general, sloppy and unconvincing, busy and complex to a distracting extent. I have seen this very technique (live miniature moving animation performed in front of a camera for immediate broadcast to an audience) employed expertly and brilliantly by The Paper Cinema: in these hands, however, it only exposes its flaws, rather than creating its magic. Apart from anything else, Spear’s production assistants were often stood directly between the audience and the screen as they carried out their animations, totally obstructing our view. Either the screen should have been higher, or the production assistants should have been lower (seated, or creeping, instead of standing): the familiar whinge of “You’re a better door than a window, dear,” occurred to me more than once.

We go to Tête à Tête to see bold, brave, experimental new opera, and I’m all for genre breaking. Wagner himself, indeed, rejected the very word ‘opera’ as a description of his mature work: aesthetic anarchy is part of genre development. But, while they must and should develop, genres do also have to be somehow defined, otherwise we end up in a state of endless artistic vagueness. This piece, while intriguing and ambitious, is at the very end of what might be called opera: but, until it can also be relayed with slick production skills to match the undisputed talents of its two lead roles, it also leaves us rather at the end of our wits – and the end of our tether.