Getting behind the regal face of Queen Elizabeth II for one evening’s entertainment turned out to be insightful and inspiring and a whole lot of fun.
We have little in-depth knowledge about our official Australian Head of State but Peter Morgan has done something well overdue – pick a part of her job we know nothing much about and use it to illuminate her strengths and have us forgive her weaknesses. In short, show us Her Majesty’s human side, albeit what Morgan and others construct as her human side.
The award-winning play the Audience starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth (she recently won the Tony Award for best leading actress in a play) shows Queen Elizabeth meeting her prime ministers one-on-one over the course of her long reign, from her first, Sir Winston Churchill to her current, David Cameron.
The Prime Minister is not obliged to meet the Queen each week but this practice was established before Elizabeth’s reign and is viewed as a courtesy and this courtesy has been fulfilled by twelve prime ministers since she sat on the throne. The Queen has managed to enjoy, and in sometimes endure, her Tuesday evenings with each of them in the Audience room at Buckingham palace over the decades.
The play selects key dialogues that may have occurred with certain prime ministers. Surprisingly, we jumped all over the decades and did not see the prime ministers in their chronological order. This worked much better and gave Morgan the chance to focus on the Queen’s growth as a person and a monarch and not so much the PMs and all their worldly problems.
He kept this focus by showing, through flashback, themes and lessons Elizabeth had learnt as a youngster from her different nannies – her moral codes. Morgan conveyed the idea of how this upbringing was influential in her reactions and discussions of the world’s problems presented by the line of her PMs. Her past was brought to life with the use of young actor, Sadie Sink, who played the young princess along with her favourite Nanny Bobo McDonald (Tracy Sallows). These flashback scenes were wonderfully played and gave a real sense of how her earlier years and education guided her into the life she was destined to fulfill. It was an intriguing bit of theatre when both young and older Queen stood side by side and talked to each other, Elizabeth talking to her inner voice, to her life long past. These couple of scenes were most poignant.
Mirren’s performance met expectations. It was effortless, well timed, sharp and well nuanced. She’s had much practice in playing the Queen over the years, most memorable, her starring role in the Peter Morgan adaptation to the screen of Stephen Frears’ The Queen which focused on the crisis of Lady Diana’s death. With relief, this territory was not covered all over again in The Audience which is what I expected with the Tony Blair scene. Instead, Blair (Rufus Wright) was shown attempting to justify his decision to go to war against Iraq after 9/11.
The best scenes of the play covered her endearing relationship with Harold Wilson played masterfully by Richard McCabe. Many tender moments and moments of social intimacy that could not have been fulfilled by Her Majesty because of her position garnered much sympathy from this Broadway audience.
Other assumptions depicted were that Churchill was so brusque with her, that she and Thatcher had a testy relationship and that boredom kicks in whenever David Cameron (Rufus Wright again) is in the room. Also, the connection between and importance of religion and the English monarchy for Elizabeth was touched upon.
It is so interesting appreciating the voice skills required actors in playing in accents other than their own. Some of the American actors in the cast did not come close in producing a strong British RP accent or a Scots accent. We know these British PM voices so well and to hear them fall short reveals the difficulty of producing such voices on stage. Judith Ivey did an excellent job, however, with Thatcher’s very distinctive style, accent and intonation.
The Audience by Peter Morgan
Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York.
Running 10 March – 28 June 2015.