The Affair of the Diamond Necklace

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

15/08/2009 - 15/08/2009

Production Details

Marie Antoinette’s Court re-created in Wellington World First

History, food, music, theatre and fancy dress will combine in an interactive theatre event next month, designed to thumb its nose at the doom and gloom of the recession.

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace will catapult those attending back through time to the French court of the glamorous Marie Antoinette in 1785.  This world first event was conceived and designed by environmental scientist and author Dr Eric Dorfman, who also has a background in theatre and film, and social scientist Morgan Davie, who specialises in interactive events. They are both part of the exhibition design collective, Eklektus Inc., and share an interest in climate change research. Dorfman was the author of the critically acclaimed Melting Point: New Zealand and the Climate Crisis (Penguin 2008).

On the surface, two climate change scientists have little to do with the court of Versailles, so why are they doing this?

"Marie Antoinette lived in luxury – and found it hard to see beyond her lavish lifestyle and understand what was happening beyond the palace. You could say that’s a metaphor for how many people are with climate change", says Dorfman. "It’s great to indulge, but unless we look beyond our comfort zone we’ll end up in trouble, just as Marie Antoinette did." 

Eklektus Inc. wanted to do something creative that is not only fun for those who come, but also has a strong backbone of scholarship, Dorfman says. "We’re all about thinking outside the box, so we wanted to give Wellingtonians something special to help them through this hard winter – innovative entertainment with a basis in real history." 

Eklektus Inc. has partnered with the St James Theatre in mounting The Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The evening includes live music, period dance and an authentic 18th Century banquet, all of which play to the strengths of the prestigious St James. 

The show is another world first for New Zealand, Dorfman says. It combines techniques and ideas from many sources, including murder mysteries and free-form role play. The same detail that went into Eklektus’ exhibitions at Te Papa, Blood Earth Fire and The Poisoners! has gone into The Affair of the Diamond Necklace. 

Although Wellington will be the first place to experience the event, the concept will then go international – there is already interest from several other countries, Dorfman says.

For further information see:

Marie Antoinette:  Jessica Manins
Louis XVI:  Damian Reid
Jeanne, Countess de Lamotte:  Kerina Deas
Cardinal de Rohan:  David Cathro
Count Cagliostro:  Roger Livingstone
Nicole d'Oliva:  Siren Delux
Baron de Breteuille:  Morgan Davie
Monsieur Boehmer:  Norbert Koptisch
Prince Louis-Joseph, Dauphin of France:  Christian Smith

Dance segments choreographed and lead by Kathy Watson.
Soundscaping created by Joel Anscombe-Smith.

Let them eat, drink, play and dance

Review by Maryanne Cathro 03rd Sep 2009

You know that feeling where, looking back on an evening, it may have had moments of imperfection but the overall impression is of having had a wonderful time?

That is how I would sum up The Affair of the Diamond Necklace. It’s not just a whodunnit evening,  a dinner, improv theatre, a museum exhibit, role play, or party. And yet it is all of those things at once, and greater than the sum of its parts as a result.  

I took the leap into going because I couldn’t resist the chance to dress up in 18th C gear. I suspect that most of the attendees felt the same way. People arrived at The Jimmy [the St James foyer bar] over about an hour, and my friend and I stood outside to enjoy the impact of it all on the usual denizens of Courtenay Place. The impressive doorman and impressively dressed guests walking from wherever they had parked their carriages for the evening, added to the free entertainment of passers by. Costumes varied in accuracy but most people made a real effort and the rather eclectic result was highly entertaining.

Drinks flowed freely in the foyer, forsooth, as people mixed and mingled merrily.

Eric Dorfmann, the brains behind the event, was playing the part of Master of Ceremonies for the evening and rallied everyone into practising their ‘legs’ and curtsies with one another, aided by the Dauphin (Christian Smith). Eventually we were shown upstairs to where the dinner was to take place.

About now, I have to say WOW! The upstairs foyer of the St James was transformed into the Garden of Versailles – plants and flowers, a fountain, bunting and lanterns everywhere. It was beautiful. We were guided around to where the MC announced each guest before we got to practise newly learnt curtsy/leg skills in front of Louis XVI (Damian Reid) and Marie Antoinette (Jessican Manins). As I was dressed as a man, Eric decided that I would be the Duke of Normandy for the evening. I wish!

We chose a table that turned out to be occupied by M. Boehmer (Norbert Koptisch), the jeweller who had originally created the famous necklace. Each table had a character from the story, allowing the actors to indulge in some improvisation around their role in events. Our menus contained paper slips with clues, items of court gossip etc that we were encouraged to take to the Royal table. I enjoyed the chance to practise my best Georgette-Heyer-learnt speech patterns in letting their Majesties know some bit of tittle tattle I can’t even remember (it was hardly the point of the exercise after all!)

I don’t remember when the action began, or how. Suddenly, Cardinal de Rohan (David Cathro) was on his feet and defending his honour with the Queen. De Rohan was the richest man in France and had Ambitions that were hampered by having fallen out with Marie Antoinette; a situation he was desperate to change and which made him a sitting duck, as history implies, for the events that unfolded.

I won’t give away the plot as Eklektus may be running this event again, but I will give some historical context. Thirteen years earlier in 1772, Louis XV commissioned a diamond necklace for his mistress Madame du Barry. However by the time the jewelers had sourced the seventeen perfect diamonds needed, and completed the piece valued at two million francs, Louis XV was dead, du Barry banished from court, and the jeweler faced ruin if he could not find a buyer. Attempts to sell the necklace to Marie Antoinette and its mysterious disappearance are the basis of the story played out in this experience. (It’s all on Wikipedia if you’re interested)

In the press release, Eric Dorfmann draws a parallel between Marie Antoinette’s "let them eat cake" attitude and our attitude to climate change. It’s a valid one and there are examples throughout history of the binge/purge cycle of human excess. However on the night I confess I was not thinking such deep thoughts, I was just having fun.

I also confess that I had some inside running on how it would work as it was indeed my husband playing Cardinal de Rohan, but even so the experience felt very much like it would have in reality – had the events of history played out at a dinner in the Gardens of Versailles (which they did not).

Various characters such as the Comtesse de la Motte, played with consummate improv élan by Kerina Deas, had been working the tables all night building up to their scripted roles in the drama although I personally would have liked more of this. In spite of the topic of conversation at our table being American politics 2009 style, it all somehow worked. Anachronisms are always going to be part of an event like this and they only add to the fun. I should also add that one of the imperfections of the evening was that I was really hot inside all that 18th C gear.

After the various characters had revealed their parts in the affair according to history, we were asked to vote as a table for who we felt was the real culprit – the ambitious cardinal, the scheming but broke noblewoman, the golden-hearted strumpet Nicole d’Oliva (Siren Delux) or the enigmatic and flamboyant Italian Count Cagliostro (Roger Livingstone). The latter was found guilty of being Italian by at least one table, but not guilty of the crime itself.

The food was great and plentiful; I had been concerned, as my avid reading of Georgette Heyer hadn’t promised much in terms of modern day palatability. The only culinary imperfection was that the spatchcock chicken wasn’t actually spatchcocked! I hear that the dancing was great too, although I had to flee like Cinders before that part of the evening.

If you like to dress up and play act, if you like improv, if history interests you, or costuming, or royal power politics, then do keep an eye out for a repeat chance to go. A great night out was had by all. At $145 a ticket plus costume hire or creation, it was not a cheap night out but given that it included a good three course meal with plenty of wine, a play and dancing, I think it is great value, and it really is a unique experience for Wellington.

I happen to know that the next event will benefit from lessons learnt the first time so maybe a repeat experience will be of an amazing evening with no moments of imperfection at all!
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