“The Audience,” a middle brow British export starring the quick-change artistry of Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, imagines what happens during Her Majesty’s private weekly meetings with England’s prime ministers over the course of her six decade reign. By the end of Peter Morgan’s play, we have learned that Queen Elizabeth
- suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
- hates Buckingham Palace
- has a wry sense of humor and dry wit
- grew up with a Scottish nanny who slept in her bedroom until she was 15, which made her identify with ordinary, middle class people
- is politically liberal
What we don’t learn is whether any of this is true. The weekly “audience” that the British sovereign has held with the British prime minister, which has been taking place for centuries, is completely private; more to the point, Queen Elizabeth is protective of her privacy, and is restricted by her role as a constitutional monarch from publicly revealing her views. The upshot is that “The Audience” presents a character sketch of the queen that is largely unreliable, providing little authentic insight and even less drama.
So what, you might ask, is the point?
While it was a hit on the West End, “The Audience” is likely to appeal on this side of the Atlantic primarily to Anglophiles, Monarchists and fans of Helen Mirren, who is best known for her role as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the British TV drama Prime Suspect… and for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in the 2006 film, “The Queen” — which was also written by Peter Morgan.
That movie focuses on the British Royal Family’s response to the death of Princess Diana. Those expecting something similar in “The Audience” should know that there is no mention of Diana’s death in “The Audience” — and only brief mention of her or Prince Charles at all.
And yet, there is a point to “The Audience,” or at least, a selling point — the chance to see Helen Mirren on stage, in her return to Broadway after an absence of 14 years. With generous assist from costume (and set) designer Bob Crowley and hair and makeup designer Ivana Primorac, Mirren makes lightning-quick transformations from 25-year-old yet-to-be-crowned sovereign still in mourning clothes for her father meeting with Winston Churchill, to frail but impeccably appointed 88-year-old grandmother apt to snooze while current prime minister David Cameron prattles on – – some dozen different Elizabeths in all. Indeed, one should be forgiven for suspecting that the random (non-chronological) order of her meetings with the prime ministers — first , we see her with John Major in 1995, then with Churchill in 1952, then with Harold Wilson in 1964, and so on– is primarily designed to showcase Mirren’s skill in metamorphosis.
Mirren is supported by a large cast of professionals. There is even a “Young Elizabeth” (portrayed by alternate young actresses) who talks more openly about the resentments she feels about the limitations placed upon her because of her royal duties. The stand-outs in the cast include Dakin Matthews as an ancient and patronizing Churchill, and Richard McCabe as the radical Labor prime minister and regular Joe, Harold Wilson, whom the playwright has decided was the queen’s favorite PM. Kudos to two other familiar American actors who are here unrecognizable in their makeup, manner and accents, Dylan Baker as John Major and Judith Ivey as Margaret Thatcher.
It’s in her exchanges with Major that we first see the queen’s wit:
“I only ever wanted to be ordinary,” Major says at the outset.
The queen pauses. “And in which way do you consider you’ve failed in that?”
Later Major asks whether she and her sister weren’t victims of gender discrimination because she was only ever tutored at home, while male heirs would have been sent to school. She replies: “I suppose we were. Do you think I should sue?”
The encounters with the prime ministers include a few brief discussions of moments in history that one could consider political: Elizabeth talks about the invasion of the Suez Canal with Prime Minister Anthony Eden and of the invasion of Iraq with Prime Minister Tony Blair in a way in which we are clearly led to believe she disagreed with their decisions. The bulk of her meeting with an unpleasant Thatcher is in effect an argument over Thatcher’s refusal to support the worldwide protest movement against South Africa’s apartheid policies. But most of the meetings offer snatches of biographical information — and the supposed inner feelings — of prime ministers largely unknown in the United States. To make up for our ignorance, Geoffrey Beevers as a white-gloved Equerry (one of the queen’s assistants) provides background exposition throughout the show, including descriptions of the furniture in the room where the audience takes places. An insert in the Playbill offers a brief rundown on the eight prime ministers who appear on stage, out of the 12 who have served during Elizabeth’s reign.
The satisfactions of such exposure to Great Britain’s politicians are as fleeting as the presence of a couple of corgis that at one point rush across the stage — dogs that are Elizabeth’s favorite breed… which is one of the few indisputable facts about her in “The Audience.”
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater,
By Peter Morgan; directed by Stephen Daldry; designed by Bob Crowley; lighting by Rick Fisher; sound by Paul Arditti; composer, Paul Englishby; hair and makeup design by Ivana Primorac.
Cast: Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth II), Dylan Baker (John Major), Geoffrey Beevers (Equerry), Michael Elwyn (Anthony Eden), Judith Ivey (Margaret Thatcher), Dakin Matthews (Winston Churchill), Richard McCabe (Harold Wilson), Rod McLachlan (Gordon Brown), Rufus Wright (David Cameron/Tony Blair), Elizabeth Teeter (Young Elizabeth) and Sadie Sink (Young Elizabeth).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $79.00 – $157.00
The Audience is scheduled to run through June 28, 2015 — shortly before “Hamilton” — a musical that features a group of Americans who fought a revolution to get away from monarchy — begins performances a block away.