Sunday, 10 March 2013

Theatre Review: ‘The Audience’ starring Helen Mirren as the Queen

I was off to Theatreland last week to see perhaps the royal entertainment of the year, Helen Mirren playing the Queen in the new play, The Audience. It was still in previews (its opening night was just a few days ago) so they were still working out some details, but it was hardly noticeable and the play was coherent and fully enjoyable.

The subject is of course the weekly audience that the Queen holds with her current Prime Minister where the business of the week is discussed behind closed doors. Although previous monarchs have held frequent meetings with their Prime Ministers, the Queen is actually the first monarch to hold them on a regular basis, and in doing so she had made them a new working part of the British Constitution (it will be interesting to see how future monarchs continue this tradition). The secrecy surrounding the weekly audience in particular has been the Queen’s own contribution to the arrangement, which obviously made The Audience a little hard to script.

The Play

The Audience was the creation of Peter Morgan, who also wrote the script for The Queen, Helen Mirren’s previous royal vehicle from 2006. Morgan admitted that, because of the secrecy surrounding the weekly event, the conversations taking place in the play are imagined, based more on supposition, gossip and reconstruction (though I wonder how much providential material has slipped from the mouths of previous Prime Ministers). There is however an air of verisimilitude to the script, and most of what you see on stage is at least plausible.

The beginning of an actual audience between the Queen and her Prime Minister. What happens after the first public pleasantries is shrouded in secrecy.

Interestingly, Morgan built the play in a non-linear way instead of showing the many audiences chronologically. We see the Queen and her PMs skipping through time from 1992 to 1952, 1974, 2012 and so on. Morgan said this was done to give an element of surprise for the audience which would not have been possible with a chronological play where spectators knew exactly which Prime Minister and event would come next.

By the same token, he was also selective with his PMs: MacMillan, Home and Heath are nowhere to be seen, while Blair was purposely kept out of it, officially since his character was already explored in The Queen movie, though possibly also because his name has become publicly radioactive in this country. In any case, the scrambling did not affect the historical thrust of the play. There is an incredible sense of history as you get bounced around between the events of the last 60 years, showing how much change has taken place during the Queen’s reign.

Attending the play itself was a very pleasurable experience. The Gielgud Theatre, on Shaftesbury Avenue, is marvelously ornate, with a wonderful ceiling and chandelier, and an EIIR royal cipher right above the stage which am not sure if it was there just for the play or not. The stage design is very simple but majestic, with only a few pieces of furniture in the middle for a seated audience and a background of the grand state rooms in Buckingham Palace complete with the throne room seen in the distance (there is also a digression to a tartan-ridden Balmoral in Act II). The acoustics were of course perfect and the theatre itself is very intimate so you can follow the play quite well from every angle.

The wonderfully gilded Gielgud.

A Prime Ministers’ Parade

Although the play is obviously marketed as a study of the Queen, it is actually as much about her 12 Prime Ministers as it is about her—her own ‘Dirty Dozen’, as she calls them (though only 8 are shown on stage). The Audience allows Morgan to reveal Prime Ministers as much as the monarch (or at least what he thinks of them) and some of the portraits are quite touching: John Major gets emotional recalling how he disappointed his parents as a teenager, and there is a very harrowing moment when Gordon Brown painfully admits that he might not be cut out to be Prime Minister (again, perhaps more what Morgan and the country thinks rather than what the actual Gordon Brown thinks).

Edward Fox as Churchill—a very slim Churchill.

The Queen’s first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, played by Edward Fox, was a bit of let down when I attended the play. Fox is too thin to play the rotund Churchill and he had not yet captured the famous Churchillian drawl. But that probably had more to do with the fact that he had only played the role for a few days. The first choice, Robert Hardy, who played Churchill previously on TV, had to pull out of the play only a few days earlier after breaking a rib. The script however was good enough to make you concentrate on what Fox said rather than how he said it.

Churchill teaches an overeager young Queen how the rather informal audiences work, and gives a mini-lesson on how the meetings reflect the oddity and efficiency of the British Constitution. There is a wonderful moment when the Queen complains that all she is entitled to do as monarch is sit and listen, while the Prime Minister acts as a constitutional dictator—to which Churchill replies, Yes, but “what ambitious, self-regarding dictator could fail to be impressed by all this (i.e. the majesty of the palace)…and by you!...One by one your Prime Ministers will fall under your spell!”

That prophecy certainly applies to Harold Wilson, the most memorable PM from the whole play, and the one who takes the stage for longer (he appears in three audiences). Richard McCabe (right) dominates the stage from the first moment he bursts onto the scene and grinningly apologizes to the Queen. “Whatever for”, she asks. “Winning!” he replies (i.e. the 1964 election). He starts out as a working class snob, a self-proclaimed ‘ruffian’, outwardly looking down on any royal privilege, but by the end of this audience he lets out that he secretly is in awe of the monarchy. He has fallen under the spell and when he retires from the Queen he even withdraws very obsequiously, walking backward as if he is were before George III! He comes out brash and somewhat buffoonish, but also becomes the Queen’s favorite Prime Minister, the only one who deals with the Queen as a real person, instead of an officeholder.

Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, is a complete wreck. Her characterization is the weakest part of the play, mostly because it seems inspired more by pre-set political views than her actual personality. The lines that are put into her mouth are self-evident: she speaks about breaking the Unions, being uncaring, and that “there is no longer such thing as society”. She is a self-proclaimed woman with no heart who says “my duty is to put sentimentality to one side”. These are all Labour lovey bugbears, reshashed over and over since the 1980s, and quite tiresome to hear by this point.

Maggie and Lilibeth: not quite the epic pairing it could have been.

It might be that Morgan used Thatcher to introduce some conflict in Act II—there is some tension between the Queen and Maggie on South Africa and the Sunday Times royal leaks of 1986—but if so the whole thing falls flat because one is too distracted by this caricature of Thatcher to pay any attention to the actual story (Haydn Gwynne who plays Thatcher milks it for all it’s worth). It’s a pity because the pairing could have provided some great dialogue between two of the most formidable British women of the 20th century. But I guess this piece of theatre will have to wait until a playwright is brave enough to shed personal political convictions and just be a good playwright. The pairing of the two could be a great whole play in itself.

The Woman Behind the Queen

So where is the Queen among all of this, you ask, and why have I not talked about her yet? She is there from start to finish, ageing and rejuvenating as the play skips along but it’s hard to really make sense of her character. The play tries to look beyond the impenetrable, witty façade of our monarch, tries to make assumptions about her feelings, but, true to the Queen’s own character, and true to Mirren’s acting skills, she remains somewhat inscrutable.

The object of the play is to give glimpses of what the Queen is really like from the way she deals with each Prime Minister. We learn from her time with Wilson that she is frugal and practical (“a good Labour woman!” Wilson calls her at one point). From her meeting with Thatcher we learn that she is deeply attached to the people of the Commonwealth, and from her time with Major that she hates being sick (something we were reminded just this week).

The ordinary and the extraordinary: John Major (Paul Ritter) speaks to the Queen. Major’s first lines from the play are actually “I only ever wanted to be ordinary.”

From her conversations with Brown and Eden we learn that she thinks it’s important to get a good night’s sleep, especially if you’re running things, and we get a topical glimpse of her views from her meeting with David Cameron: the Queen doesn’t like the Coalition because people didn’t vote for it (“had you formed a coalition first and then gone to the country it would have been a different matter”), and she does not believe in abdication—“unlike the Pope!!” I attended the play on the very evening Benedict XVI left the Vatican and when Mirren delivered that short line, face turned to the audience, she got the biggest reaction of the entire night.

Politically, the play also shows something those in know are very aware: the Queen is far shrewder that people realize, and always has been. The best moment in the play for me was her audience with Anthony Eden during the Suez Crisis of 1956. In a very dramatic scene, the Queen tells Eden she has figured out the international intrigue behind the scenes that preceded the UK military intervention in Egypt. She has done it by carefully going through her red boxes:

Queen: Don’t forget, as Sovereign, I am Copy Number One.

Eden: …and…er…Copy Number One read those minutes?

Queen: She did. She reads every piece of paper. That’s in every box. Every day.
The scene is particularly symbolic because it is set right after an imagined 1950s photoshoot with Cecil Beaton with the Queen dressed in full royal dress, jewels and tiara, her figure so majestic and resplendent that it sparks flashes of light all over the house. It is almost a signal that the glory of the monarchy is not as empty as people suppose: behind the Queen’s polished image there lies a mind that is just as sharp. Similarly, during her audience with Churchill the Queen figures out that the 16-months wait between her accession and coronation was planned solely for Churchill’s political benefit.

Magnificent Mirren

All these political encounters are very believable because Helen Mirren is perfect in the role. She said she was reluctant to reprise the role of the Queen for fears of being typecast, but I would think that’s a small price to pay to be remembered for lifetimes to come. After all, who would remember Charles Laughton but for his Henry VIII, or Flora Robson but for her Queen Elizabeth I? Besides, Mirren this time expands her acting challenge to portray the Queen at different points in her life, and most of it is believable. Her middle-age Elizabeth is still the best, but she is also good as the ageing monarch of today.

The only weakness perhaps is her younger Queen, partly because it is naturally hard for a woman in her 60s to look like she is 20-something, and partly because Mirren cannot quite replicate the clipped aristocratic accent of the young Elizabeth. But it is a small complaint when you consider that she changes outfits, wigs and character reference right on stage, among shadows, in a matter of minutes: a truly impressive feat.

The two H.M.s: Separated at birth?

Mirren has the walk, wit and mimicry of the Queen down to perfection. She can be very funny, just like the real Queen is reputed to be, and she dispenses many quips throughout the play. (after Gordon Brown accidentally puts his foot in his mouth regarding her age and wisdom, Mirren’s Queen retorts “Well, I think that started life as a compliment but ended up somewhere else...”) Mirren is also very good in letting the mask down just enough to glimpse the monarch’s mood changes, but not enough to actually understand her emotions. This is in fact the biggest problem in playing our very enigmatic monarch—the Marble Queen, I sometimes call her—because Her Majesty gives very little public material to work with.

Morgan tried to get around it by having the Queen’s young alter-ego burst on stage from time to time, played by different young actresses each at a time. It’s a very odd at first as the young Princess Elizabeth begins to have conversations with the old Elizabeth, but you get used to it and you realize that it’s a way for the Queen to show her true self—“the real me and not the other person”. From these conversations we learn that she hates Buckingham Palace (the wind howling down the chimneys “howls like a 1,000 ghosts”), she longs to be outside, is stubborn, and feels that she was pushed into her golden prison without a choice. In a touching moment the young Elizabeth even prays that her father might have a boy to inherit the throne.

Where has my youth gone? Mirren’s Old Elizabeth talks with her disappearing young self.
There are of course some minor historical inaccuracies, written in for dramatic effect. Wilson most certainly did not resign from office because he knew he had Alzheimer’s, and he did not act like a ‘ruffian’ in front of the Queen (banish the thought for a former Oxford don!). Also, John Major did not propose to decommission the Royal Yacht Britannia: that was the work of one of the play’s missing Prime Ministers, Tony Blair (who still gets a few derogatory mentions from the Queen throughout the play, including calling his wife ‘Cheryl’). But it’s all minor stuff. The show is memorable in so many other ways, including an unforgettable closing monologue by the Queen which ends the play with the lines “If you want to know how the monarchy in this country has survived as long as it has, don’t look to its monarchs: look to its Prime Ministers.” (True, but only partly, however I’ll let that slide for now…)

All the Queen’s Men: Her Majesty and some of her
Prime Ministers from The Audience.

It is not often that you are privileged to witness theatre history in the making: Ellen Terry playing Macbeth, Crawford and Brightman in Phantom, War Horse at the National Theatre. Although a more tamed creature, I have the feeling that Helen Mirren’s Queen in The Audience will be remembered just as long in London’s theatre history, as a thoughtful, well-written, somewhat nostalgic tribute to a great monarch in the twilight of her reign.

The play is only going to run for three months, and although there are plans to broadcast it live to movie theatres sometime in June, it’s not clear if we will ever see the like of it afterwards—certainly not with Mirren channeling the Queen so well. This is history in the making, and a fitting tribute to Our Enigmatic Majesty by a fine actress and a fine script.

The Audience runs at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London until June 15, 2013
Read more and book tickets at the play’s website.

Read reviews of the play at the
the Daily Mail,

“Thank you and goodnight.”

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