The playwright chatted to Emma Clarendon about the world premiere stage production of Falling in Love Again at the King’s Head Theatre.
Hi Ron, for those who don’t know could you explain a bit more about what Falling in Love Again is about?
In 1936, Marlene Dietrich was the most highly paid actor in the world. She was offered $450,000 to make her way to London to appear in a movie entitled Knight Without Armour, which she did, by transatlantic liner, along with 60 pieces of luggage, her 16-cylinder Cadillac and her driver. When she arrived, the story about the abdication of King Edward VIII was just breaking in the news. Edward, who was single and had not long ascended to the throne, had fallen in love with an American woman, Wallis Simpson who, in addition to being an American, was a commoner, a divorcee and, at the time they started seeing one another, still married. So the relationship was a scandal on several counts. This being the case, the only way he could in fact marry her – once she was divorced from her husband at the time – was to abdicate the throne, which was massive news at the time.
Marlene, who had left Germany because she was passionately opposed to Hitler and to fascism, was deeply concerned that the abdication would weaken Britain’s position in relation to Germany, should a conflict arise (as it turned out, the war was only three years away). And so, being Marlene, she decided to have her driver take her to Fort Belvedere, the King’s ‘country’ home where, on the very eve of the planned abdication, she would seduce the King, thereby convincing him that it wasn’t worth sacrificing the British Crown for another woman. Her powers of seduction (of both men and women) were legendary – it’s doubtful that she ever went to bed alone for a single night in her entire adult life – and so it was no idle threat! The play takes up the story at the point of her arrival, as there is no historical record of what actually happened from this point forward.
How did the idea for the play come about?
I hatched the idea upon listening to a podcast series entitled ‘You Must Remember This’, a series dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century, hosted by Karina Longworth. The particular episode on the day was about the life and times of Marlene Dietrich, and this particular event was mentioned almost in passing.
What was about this particular event in history that interested you the most?
Initially, I was utterly captivated and enormously impressed by Marlene herself. I had already known about her movies and her music, of course, but had not really known much about her life prior to hearing the podcast. To me as a playwright – and one who often likes to take real historical events and launch off into speculative history, taking care not to disturb the factual landscape around them – the presence of these two iconic characters of the 20th century in the one room, alone, at such a pivotal time for the British Empire, was utterly irresistible.
They were very, very different people from very different backgrounds, finding themselves in very different situations, and the intersection of these two lives, moving as they were – as juggernauts through history – seemed too great an opportunity to forego. The more I then read about Marlene, the more extraordinary she seemed – a true force of nature, and someone utterly deserving of a play in her own right. And the more I read about the abdication, the more complex and extraordinary its details seemed from the perspective of the 21st century, particularly given what has happened in relation to the Royals since, what with Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana and Harry’s recent marriage to Meghan Markle, an American, a commoner, a woman of colour, a divorcee and a movie star.
How do you see each of the characters in the play? Edward was a man finding himself in a unique position in history. He had been brought up as the heir apparent from an early age but, within him, though he was not what I would call an extraordinary individual in his own right, was something restless and mercurial, something that resisted the suffocating straitjacket of the kingly role. Added to this, his handsome appearance – women literally threw themselves at him, and he was world-famous for being the most eligible bachelor in the world – meant that he had ample opportunity to play the field (an opportunity which he grabbed with both hands). But he just happened to find himself in the vice of history – a vice so tight that there was no wriggle-room.Marlene, as I have said, was a force of nature. She was highly talented, very beautiful – even more so in real life, by all accounts – highly intelligent, highly ambitious, utterly driven and possessed of an enormous capacity for sheer hard word. She was extraordinarily courageous, thumbing her nose at the Nazi regime at no small risk to herself and, once the war began, placing herself at the very front line in order to perform for the troops, which she did tirelessly. She was always there for friends in need, cooking, getting down on hands and knees and cleaning for them, giving money and providing all manner of material and emotional support. She was also extraordinarily generous, giving away enormous amounts of money to those in need and making extraordinary efforts to liberate Jews from Nazi Germany right up until the war. No challenge was too great for her, and she carried her conquering attitude into everything she did.
How are you feeling about Falling in Love Again coming to the stage for the first time? It’s always a great thrill to have an idea that was once a ‘germ’ in your head come alive on stage in front of an audience. It’s a magical experience, and one that can never be predicted in its outcome. I often write plays that are far more intellectual in their approach, far more layered in their meaning, but this is one that is almost entirely character-based, and it’s a thrill to see these two icons of the last century come alive once more in a setting that is truly unique.
What are you looking forward to about audiences seeing the play?It’s always utterly rivetting to see how people react. No two audiences – and, indeed, no two performances – are the same, so that the response can vary enormously from one nght to the next. What one audience finds hilarious flies straight over the heads of another, what one audience finds delicious, another might find offensive. There’s absolutely no predicting. My only real hope, given that this play, at its heart, is an entertainment, is that audiences leave the theatre feeling that they’ve been immersed in a story that has transported them and made them feel that they’ve undergone an emotional journey.
How would you describe Falling in Love Again? I would describe it as an intimate, nuanced character study of the interplay of two of the 20th century’s iconic figures placed in a unique situation. In summary (I hope), a charming, diverting, funny and, ultimately, moving evening in the theatre.
By Emma Clarendon
Falling in Love Again will play at the King’s Head Theatre from the 14th January until the 8th February.