Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Virtual princess, designed to fit the story
‘And I said to Mum,” confided the young pram-pushing woman to her pram-pushing friend, “I said, ‘I hope you and Ann don’t cry.’ ” They were blocking the hushed entrance to the Powerhouse’s Diana: A Celebration, and there were tears, at the end. It was always going to end in tears. But history does not record whether any were shed by mum, or mum’s friend Ann. Postmodern egalitarianism be damned. Mum and Ann do not interest history.
History is, however, interested in Princess Diana. Very, very interested, and not because she was a nice person. Germaine Greer grabbed herself another dollop of global limelight recently in describing Diana as “slow-witted and neurotic … a devious moron”. She may even be right, insofar as you can be right about other selves.
The show, by contrast, gives a strong sense of Diana’s sweetness. This, equally, may be genuine. Sweet or devious, though, is not the point, and not only because devious moronism barely rates on the scale of royal depravity. No, the “real” Diana is irrelevant because Diana is who we say she is. Who we want her to be.
We all live with one foot in virtual reality. Inside our heads, and largely for our own one-person audience, we run the self-as-hero movie that fleetingly immortalises our life, even as we live it. Diana was this phenomenon amplified. Mum and Ann may be, say, 20 per cent virtual; Diana was a 90 per center. Diana, Princess of Hearts, was a construct.
This makes the Powerhouse, our science and design museum, the ideal Diana venue. Diana is not science. Even a blur of virtuality and pop-psychology cannot take us that far. But design? Absolutely. Diana: A Celebration reveals the design and production phases of the glittering, tear-jerking narrative we call Diana.
It’s a startlingly simple story, in this multiplot, optional-ending interactive-fiction era. A simple story with a classical narrative arc: beginning, complication, climax, end. Birth, courtship, marriage, death. Not any old birth, marriage and death. Our continuing enchantment with Diana’s extraordinary take on these so-ordinary events shows that Shakespeare (like the Spencers) had a better grasp on the human psyche than Beckett or Ionesco. As intensely hierarchical primates we care way more about births, deaths and marriages enacted on high than those same events lived in the gutter, or the burbs.
Designing Diana was therefore an exercise in structure: enough stability to achieve the height to dramatise the fall, but little enough to ensure that it happened. This gave the narrative arc its shape and its power, drawing 2.5 billion viewers to the funeral.
The exhibition reduces this narrative arc, this “life”, to its essential eloquent objects. Surprisingly prevalent among these – holding the froth of portraits, tiaras, shoes and frocks as the rock holds the oyster – is architecture.
It begins with pedigree; evidence that the pre-Diana “Spencer women” were significant turns on their proximity to the throne, their fashion sense and their acquaintance with “politicians and playwrights, architects and painters, actors, composers and musicians”.
But the real story starts with the birth. A flickering super-eight movie opens not with bloody and guttural labour, heavens no, but with the grandeur of Althorp House, set in its vast and verdant grounds, its 6000 hectares of gardens, islands, lakes and forests. We first see the babe-in-arms, in floor-length christening gown, at the gnarled stone doorway of the ancient church.
Next come the pink-and-white English toddler years, trikes and starched nannies attached, the gamboling on sunlit lawns. There’s an endearing sequence of Diana, quite redheaded at age seven or eight, showing a real comic talent for self-deprecating silliness. And throughout, there’s Althorp, hovering protectively downstage left. There’s Earl Spencer, fondly recalling Diana’s “arabesques on the sandstone balustrades of Althorp House” and her “hours on end” tap-dancing on the tessellated marble floor of Wootton Hall, Althorp’s main foyer. The image enchants, though the tap shoes we see look barely used.
Then there’s the wedding, probably the most potent public use of architecture since Speer’s Nuremberg. The dress – limp and diminutive now after that gorgeous meringue of televisual memory – was designed for the cathedral, its eight-metre train demanded by the grandest aisle in the Western world. The entire ceremony – from the closed carriage from which Diana unfolds “like a butterfly”, the red-carpet ascension, the sacred ritual choreographed for aerial filming along that lovely linear nave, and the open-carriage departure – would have been impossible without the architecture. Impossible, for example, here.
The funeral, too, held by Westminster Abbey’s sombre perpendicular (compared with the worldly classicism of St Paul’s), was architecturally dependent.
So far, so charming. But then, the sting. Old-world pretensions meet a sticky end in outright contemporary outright tackiness. Not just the vast nondescript Armani and Lacroix frockery (all outclassed by the plain white shirt and joddies Diana wore for the Angola landmine gig) but the roomful of hideous cut-crystal and printed china you’re meant to buy to help keep Althorp in gamekeepers. Like I said, Diana was always going to end in tears.