The new English import The Audience concerns Queen Elizabeth II and is played magnificently by the great actress Helen Mirren. Peter Morgan’s play zeros in on the queen’s weekly meetings with eight of the dozen prime ministers she has encountered during her 63-year reign. The queen turns 89 on April 21.
Mirren has pertly impersonated a good many first ladies of England. In 2006, she won an Academy Award playing Elizabeth II in The Queen, giving us an intimate look at the royal family dealing with the death of Princess Diana, with a brilliant screenplay also penned by Morgan. She played Elizabeth I in the 2005 television series, and in the 1994 film The Madness of King George she was the king’s wife Queen Charlotte of Meckleborg-Strelitz.
In The Audience, Morgan and director Stephen Daldry artfully, and with great theatrical effect, ricochet chronologically around Elizabeth II’s life at Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle in Scotland. One moment she is a confident, time-honored, elderly Queen with whitish hair, in a conservative pink dress, giving Prime Minister John Major (1990-1997, played by Dylan Baker) a handkerchief to wipe away tears. Minutes later, she is suddenly transformed into a dark-haired, 26 year-old Elizabeth II in a black dress, still mourning her father’s death, trying to greet her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1940-1945, 1951-1955), in his late 70s, a sickly but lofty figure. Mirren never flinches going from one age to another. Her favorite Prime Minister seems to be Harold Wilson (1964-1970, 1974-1976), played touchingly by the British actor Richard McCabe.
Mirren’s majestic performance is of course the main reason to see The Audience. Her portrayal of the Queen is so completely honest, vivid, intense and, yes, even a few times humorous. She makes every gesture, every glance meaningful. The exquisite sets and costumes are by Bob Crowley, and the hair and makeup by Ivana Primorac give the production a sense of true royal éclat.
The play has been fabricated by Morgan since none of the meetings between the queen and the prime minister are recorded or noted down by a secretary. The exchanges have either been passed down by prime ministers or speculated by insiders or newspapers. Morgan does the best he can with whatever he has been able to cobble together. His writing had an easier time on The Queen and Frost/Nixon, a 2006 play about a series of televised interviews the ousted president granted to Frost in 1977. With an actress of Mirren’s talent, we do get an added dimension of the queen’s inner life and the solitude all royals from Shakespeare to The Audience seem to share.
The Victorian, Walter Bagehot, a great historian and an editor of The Economist long ago pointed out that in a constitutional monarchy the king and queen don't have authority to contradict policy. Bagehot said they should only be consulted to advise and to warn. Of course, unfortunately, for the theater this rules out dramatic conflict, which becomes a slight problem for The Audience. The play is not a pageant, but a lot of the Queen’s meetings with the PMs are sketches rather than real theatrical drama. Once again Mirren’s acting skill makes the scenes livelier than the playwright is able to achieve.
Morgan’s idea is to show the human side of the Queen. Whenever Mirren finds a moment, she gets to turn up the Queen’s emotional wattage. There are a few times we see the Queen’s political growth. Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1955-1957, played by Michael Elwyn), backed England and France when they invaded Egypt in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the Suez Canal. From a third party we learn that the Queen opposed it. Though Eden denied that, he did resign two months later. The Queen later brings up the Suez Crisis, comparing it to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s (1997-2007, Rufus Wright) support of George W. Bush’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Queen’s temperature seems to rise when Prime Minster John Major relates Diana’s feeling about the royals’ monetary behavior or when Prime Minister Thatcher (1979-1990, Judith Ivey) arrives at Buckingham Palace like a house on fire about royal leaks to the press about her policies.
Although Morgan and Daldry's talents have made huge contributions to The Audience, it is still more of a spectacle than a play, and it is most enjoyable because of Mirren, She builds the character of the Queen nicely, and it serves to bring back this flawless actress to the Broadway stage for anyone who is lucky enough to see her at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street. In London, they are getting ready to revive a new production of The Audience with the film star Kristen Scott Thomas. It will be interesting to see her take on the Queen.