“Constitutional napalm.” That’s the focus of a new play, The Diana Tapes. The compelling theatrical production shows how a tabloid journalist and the most famous woman in the world, Princess Diana, worked together to create Diana: Her True Story, a bombshell book that set off the greatest royal scandal since Edward VIII’s abdication. Their salacious 1992 bestseller broke up a royal marriage, destroyed a prince’s reputation and forever changed the monarchy.
Princess Diana strikes back
“She must be mad,” commented True Story’s publisher Michael O’Mara. “She does know what we do for a living?” Diana didn’t care that her hand-picked hagiographer, Andrew Morton was a ruthless tabloid journalist or that O’Mara ran a tiny publishing house with no track record in printing such a high-profile book. The princess wanted to tell her side of what had degenerated into an unhappy marriage. She enlisted a close friend, Dr. James Colthurst, to approach a regular squash partner, Morton, with an exclusive book deal: She would answer any question he wanted, and in return he would keep her part in the book’s research a secret.
The Diana Tapes is intricately constructed, layering Diana’s betrayal over Morton’s avarice into a short play that packs an emotional wallop for those who don’t remember those tumultuous years, as well as Diana fans. Its spare set—a table and two chairs—combined with small cast playing just four characters, the princess, O’Mara, Colthurst and Morton, helps magnify emotions stirred and shaken by those revelations. By adding to the dialogue snippets of real news reports from the time of Charles and Diana’s marital spats, The Diana Tapes grounds itself in the knowledge that fact and fiction were being blurred in 1992, as well as on stage.
Colthurst is the go-between: Morton would write questions for Diana to answer in old-fashioned taped recordings, which Morton would weave into a book along with exclusive interviews with her close friends that could be used to cover the princess’s involvement. “Once this is out there, it can’t be reined back in,” Colthurst warns Diana in the play. “I know what I’m doing,” Diana says. “The people will read and know I suffered, suffered for them.”
Diana records her answers at Kensington Palace. Charles is back with his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, while their two sons, William and Harry, are at school. She’s rattling around the grand rooms, raging over Charles and Camilla, alone after breaking with her own lover, James Hewitt.
What follows is a series of knee-jerk reactions. She is hurting—“I wanted my husband to love me” —and that turns into viciousness towards the father of her children. The moments she recounts into that tape recorder paints Charles and the royal family in the blackest possible light. She’s convinced that public revenge will be sweet.
Princess Diana is ‘a perfect recipe for iconography’
The play, which appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is on at the Red Sandcastle Theatre until Oct. 7, is written by James Clements, who plays Andrew Morton as a dishevelled, aggressive journalist who almost can’t believe his luck in being chosen by Diana to be transported from a Fleet Street hack working in the tabloid trenches into a millionaire author. “She’s a perfect recipe for iconography: Virgin Mary, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Taylor,” the author exclaims, thinking of the millions he will make when the book is published.
As more and more tapes are delivered, both Morton and O’Mara are concerned about their truthfulness, worried how many of Diana’s tales are fact or fiction. “She’s making it up,” the author says at one point. And at times, they catch her making up stories, such as one drama about her throwing herself down a castle staircase while pregnant with Prince William. She changes the witness from the Queen to the Queen Mother.
Even Colthurst is having doubts about his old friend. “You’re painting yourself to be some sort of saint,” he says on stage, as reminds her how she’s leaked stories to the papers even before helping Morton, who says, she’s “the most accomplished media operator of our time.”
“Has she thought through the consequences?” Morton wonders. After the book is published and Colthurst’s worries are revealed to be gross underestimates, Diana scrambles to save her own skin. “I never wanted a war,” she plaintively complains to Colthurst in the theatrical production. Suddenly, the enormity of what she’s done sinks in. In a rare moment of introspection, she worries about losing her children.
Diana thought she was the puppet master, controlling Andrew Morton and the narrative of her life. In reality, as the fact-based fiction of The Diana Tapes shows, Princess Diana was the puppet, cutting her own strings.