Friday 17th April and with the new limit of 12 participants in the first of what will now be weekly zoom sessions we had a brilliant time with The S.A.D. Summers of Princess Diana, by Chilean playwright Carla Zuñiga, translated by Fran Olivares, who joined us for the reading. This proved a wonderful scrambled, curdled, scabrous fairly-tale/mythical reconceiving of the demise of the the unfortunate princess, complete with sons 'Guillermo' and 'Henri' scurrying across town in furry animal disguise to make contact with the Princess's cross-dressing ex-butler; while viciously censorious retainers 'Brunhilda' and 'Dorothea' 'gaslight' the princess and repeatedly adulterate her meals with dead rodents, aborted animal foetuses and ultimately an amputated human foot. The palace Fool, after perpetrating possibly the most excruciatingly inappropriate slapstick routine in dramatic literature, is subject to a well-deserved fatal defenestration. Overall shockingly and transgressively funny as well as deeply poignant and heartfelt. And within its dream-distortions, also a subtle and astute 'outsider' analysis of a deep cultural and social malaise.
Regular group participant Ami Sayers writes:
While we were reading this play on Friday I kept thinking, this is the play I always wish would come out whenever I sit down to write. This has only happened to me with the work of two other playwrights, Sarah Kane and Philip Ridley. Both British, both grotesque yet profoundly poetic in their approach to language, both unafraid of raw, visceral emotion and the power of a strong theatrical image that feels at once like it was scribbled in crayon by a child and by someone with a lifetime of pain and suffering clawing to be let out. Both of these writers are controversial and divisive, in my mind the only way to be as a playwright.
For me, Carla Zuniga manages to both evoke the work of both of these playwrights and create her own beautifully unique, contemporary voice that feels as relevant and poignant now as it would have done the day after Princess Diana's death. Because it is about Diana yes, but it is not just about Diana. It is about the many, many women like her (and not just women but those who do not fit the mould of what is expected of them by society). It is about Anne Boleyn, it is about Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse, Caroline Flack and countless other 'icons' or 'idols' who have failed to live up to expectations (because how could they possibly). It is about the scrutiny the media places upon such figures- as we see so palpably in the scene between the journalist (who has got herself stuck in the window of the tower Diana is locked inside) when she asks "what would you say to bulimics who are going to read this interview' and Princess Diana replies, echoing King Lear's Cordelia 'nothing'. She is exhausted by this continual scrutiny and intrusion of her life, it is one of the reasons she is 'bulimic' and yet she is being held up and expected to be an icon, a role model to those suffering in the same way. They analyse and scrutinise and tear her apart. Her life is made entertainment, her life is made a moral tale of how a woman should or should not behave, she cannot win. Amy Winehouse could not win, Caroline Flack could not win, they were pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed until they fell, metaphorically, from that tower in which we had imprisoned them.
There are so many other layers to this exquisite piece of writing, but the above is what hit me in the face, it is what made me shake as I read the first scene out loud, along with other wonderful members of the Presence reading group last Friday. The voice of a woman so profoundly exhausted by what has been thrown at her, by being inside her own skin, by feeling that she is going mad and not knowing whether she really is or whether her cruel, cruel maids are gaslighting her or if indeed it is both- because one is the product of the other. Her sheer exhaustion, her shame, her anger, her pain.
Her final speech is one that I feel many writers are attempting currently, but none (that I have read) have managed to encapsulate such a strong, angry female voice that still somehow feels relevant to all genders. Despite her biting gnashing anger at the patriarchy, misogyny becomes a human problem that we are all victims of. To write something that does this is no small task, I have tried and failed many a time.
I feel privileged to have been a part of this reading. I wish this play every success in the future. It will raise eyebrows, spark anger, divide audiences. It will be accused, I am sure, of attempting to 'burn down the palace' as Diana commands toward the end of the play. But we need writing like this in the theatre now, we need it, we need it, we need it, we need it.