Interview: Peter Mark Kendall and Rosaline Elbay on Not Playing Dodi & Diana Off-Broadway
Elbay and Kendall star in this new play at HERE, written by Kareem Fahmy.
As evidenced by the wall-to-wall coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's recent funeral, our American obsession with the British royalty is very apparent. But Kareem Fahmy's new play Dodi & Diana at HERE is not exactly about that, despite the provocative title. Inspired by astrology and the little-discussed life of Dodi Fayed, the play, which is directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, focuses on an Egyptian actress named Samira and her banker husband Jason, who happen to be working through their marriage problems at the same hotel where Fayed and Princess Diana spent their last night on earth.
Here, stars Rosaline Elbay (Samira) and Peter Mark Kendall (Jason) tell us about bringing these characters to life.
What was your first reaction when you read the script of Dodi & Diana?
Rosaline Elbay: Kareem sent us each the script at what felt like the perfect timing — Peter and I wrapped a TV project together earlier in the year, and had been talking about how much we both missed doing theater. I met Kareem for the first time when he had us over to his flat for a reading, and I felt so excited and intrigued by the play's potential, and by Samira as a character. I knew Adrienne was already attached to direct, which was a dream. And I was completely terrified of the whole thing, which I think is always a good sign when starting a project.
Peter Mark Kendall: I've known Kareem for years. We've worked together on a few workshops but never on a full production. Kareem sent Rose and me the script, and we decided we should get together to hear it out loud at Kareem's apartment. Immediately, it felt clear that something special was on the page. I thought it was singular – I knew its reference points and influences, and yet Kareem had written something that was of itself. His text felt dangerous and had a tremendous amount of heart. It was very exciting.
Do you consider yourselves Royalists (or fans of the Royals, like so many are)? If so/not, how do you view your cultural relationship to Princess Diana, and how did it impact putting the play together?
Rosaline: I quite strongly believe that monarchies shouldn't exist, and I'm not hugely into the idea of celebrity either — which means I'm probably as far from a royalist as one can get. But the play isn't really about the royals as much as it is about the pressures of external perception, which are exerted on both Samira and Jason's relationship and Diana and Dodi's, for different and overlapping reasons. Diana was drafted into an absolutely monstrous situation at the age of 19, and I felt a lot of empathy for her the more research I did, particularly as a woman who was discovering her own agency and carving out her place in the world.
Peter: I don't consider myself a royalist. It seems to me to be a very outdated institution, vestiges of a colonial mindset that is damaging. I think the money the royal family receives from taxpayers could be much better spent. Like my character Jason in the play, I remember the day Diana died very well – my mother was devastated to learn of her death. Learning how the media trapped her was so informative to our work, and feels 100 percent relevant to today; I can't imagine how much worse it would've been for her if social media had existed when she was alive.
Even though your characters are not Diana and Dodi, what was it like to be rehearsing and preparing for this play during the Queen Elizabeth funeral proceedings?
Peter: It was bizarre, a bit of synchronicity that made our work feel all the more relevant. It was a profound reminder of how much the royal family is still intertwined in British culture and affects the world.
Rosaline: I think the effect it had on me was to be freshly reminded of Meghan Markle's experiences. And to observe that, unfortunately, the tabloid press doesn't seem to have learned much since 1997.
You both did this play over the summer in South Carolina as a staged reading. What is it like to finally put it on its feet with sets, costumes, etc?
Rosaline: Being able to workshop the play at the South Carolina New Play Festival was such a gift, both as a personal experience and also for the resources it provided in terms of developing the play. The reading there did feel like its own big step forward — we'd done a workshop in New York previously, but in South Carolina, we got on our feet and introduced some movement, and the characters started to feel like people we knew.
Peter: It allowed us to get up on our feet much quicker, as we had already done a lot of table work. So much of this play relies on the naturalism of two people existing in a hotel room, so finally getting to live in that world helped find the physical language of the play. These characters really started to show themselves once we began collaborating with our brilliant designers.
Rosaline: I really can't overstate what an amazing job the designers on this show — in set, lighting, sound, wardrobe, props — have done, and how freeing it was to walk into an environment we've all been imagining together for months. It's now odd to remember a time when I didn't know what our room looked like, or how it felt to wear Samira's clothes. It's really rewarding to get to live in it all now.
What do you want audiences to take away from seeing Dodi & Diana?
Rosaline: I think I'd personally wish for people to leave with a sense of hope — whatever that means to them. Among other things, the play feels like a dissection of what it means to choose to love someone, this seemingly impossible thing of uniting yourself to a whole other person with an inner life that will always be impenetrable to you beyond what they choose, or are able, to share; a person that's constantly changing. I think that's both very beautiful and incredibly terrifying, and there is a lot of joy and sometimes ugliness in being quite so close to a partner. And that's okay — it's wonderful, actually, whether or not that particular union ends up being lifelong.
Peter: Hopefully, for our audience, there is something recognizable in these characters and words, as it can be so hard – yet essential – to love and be loved. At times, it can feel like a miracle that we can be close to others, as many obstacles can get in the way, be it personal, societal, or spiritual. I believe that life is hard, and most of the time, we are all trying our best, always with the caveat that we can do better. I would love audiences to see something of themselves in this play and know that even when things feel impossible, we all deserve happiness and love.