Queen Elizabeth II on Stage

Queen Elizabeth II, who died yesterday at the age of 96, commanded the world stage during her 70-year reign. She was also a character on theatrical stages — in Great Britain of course, but also in New York.

Clockwise from top left: Helen Mirren, Pam Ferris, Judy Kaye, Anita Carey.

Her constant presence in the public eye, coupled with her intense privacy — plus her constitutional duty to keep her opinions to herself — encouraged playwrights to give their imagination free reIn during her reign. Yet the depictions of her were generally positive.

Alan Bennett’s “A Question of Attribution” at the National Theatre in 1988, she was portrayed by Prunella Scales as clever and wise; even in Sue Townsend’s 1994 “The Queen and I,” in which England has become a republic and the privileged royal family is forced to move to a housing project, Elizabeth, portrayed by Pam Ferris, was depicted as likeable. 

The first British play about Queen Elizabeth II to make it to Broadway was Peter Morgan’s “The Audience” in 2015, starring Helen Mirren (who also played Queen Elizabeth in the 2006 film The Queen.) The play imagined what happened during Her Majesty’s private weekly meetings with some dozen of England’s prime ministers over six decade, showcasing Mirren’s quick-change artistry as she ages 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 prime minister David Cameron prattles on. By the end of “The Audience,” we have learned that Queen Elizabeth

  • suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
  • hated Buckingham Palace
  • had 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
  • wa spolitically liberal

What we didn’t learn is whether any of this was 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 was protective of her privacy, and restricted by her role as a constitutional monarch from publicly revealing her views.  The one indisputable fact in the play was that corgis were her her favorite breed of dogs (We see two scampering across the stage.)

“Handbagged,” a play by Moira Buffini that arrived Off-Broadway in 2019, imagined the relationship  between Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — two women born six months apart and forced to deal with one another for the 11 years of Thatcher’s tenure. The inventively comic play is a sly takedown on Thatcher.  Elizabeth, portrayed by two actresses (Anita Carey is the older Queen Elizabeth, Beth Hylton in her youth) debates with Thatcher, taking the positions with which most of the audience is likely to agree: loss of Empire (the Queen is happy to be left with the Commonwealth), and the apartheid regime in South Africa (the Queen supports sanctions), even whether the play should have an intermission (which the British call an interval): 

“I’d like to go right through,” Margaret Thatcher says.
“But I enjoy the interval,” says Queen Elizabeth. “Sometimes it’s the best part of the play.”

Last year, while Julie Halston appeared Off-Broadway in “Fairycakes” as Queen Elizabeth I, Judy Kaye had double-duty in “Diana The Musical,” portraying both Barbara Cartland, the romance novelist, and Queen Elizabeth II. The script describes the queen only as “doesn’t suffer fools.” Near the beginning of the musical, after Charles has met Diana, she tells him: “We are in crisis! Our popularity is declining, the public trusts us less and less. Will you at least consider her, Charles?” Near the end, when Diana is divorcing Prince Charles, Diana tells the queen “I realize I must’ve disappointed you.” The queen replies: “No argument there.” Diana tells the queen she wants eventually to move to America. The queen replies: “A country unafraid to express its every emotion. You’ll fit right in.”
But even in this cheesy Diana-centric musical in which, if not cast as the villain, she’s the villain’s mother, Elizabeth is ultimately pictured sympathetically, in the penultimate song “An Officer’s Wife,” which suggests she empathized with Diana, knowing intimately of the stresses and sacrifices involved in royal duty. Elizabeth was happy “in the arms of her sailor prince,” the lyrics went, but then the king died, “and she was crowned queen/now wherever she went she caused quite a scene/photographers snapped her every move/This frightened young girl with so much to prove.”
She never complained
She was good English stock
And her citizens saw
She was their rock

Now that Queen Elizabeth II has died, and the new monarch has decided to call himself King Charles III, it seems apt to mention the 2015 Broadway production “King Charles III” (one of three that year on Broadway about British royalty.) Mike Bartlett crafted an imitation of a Shakespeare history play; it labeled itself “a future history play.” It was written in iambic pentameter, and filled with allusions to famous scenes from the Bard’s work. There was a subtle hint of mockery in the contrast between the grand and powerful royalty chronicled by Shakespeare and the ordinary and ultimately powerless Windsors of the present day. At the beginning of play, Charles has come from the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and laments:

My whole existence has like most of us
Been built upon the ones who gave me birth.
And now they’re gone. That’s it. First Dad. Now mum. The only truth: I am alone.

(“Now mum” feels like a little playful jab.)

Queen Elizabeth was not just on the stage, but in the audience:

Throughout her life, Queen Elizabeth II showed a keen interest in the arts. During her 70-year reign, she opened the National Theatre, attended 35 Royal Variety performances, and often saw West End productions….Did you know theatre helped Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fall for one another? On 30 Apr. 1947, they attended a performance of Oklahoma! at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with the song “People Will Say We’re in Love” holding a special meaning for the couple (London Theatre)

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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