The Audience: Theater Review

Helen Mirren The Audience Production Still - P 2013

Helen Mirren The Audience Production Still - P 2013

Helen Mirren rules.

Helen Mirren revisits her Oscar-winning role in this new play by Peter Morgan, which eavesdrops on Queen Elizabeth II's weekly tete-a-tetes with her prime ministers.

LONDON -- Helen Mirren won an Oscar in 2007 for Stephen Frears’ film The Queen, her depiction of the long-reigning British monarch informed by a humanizing strain of self-doubt. She revisits that iconic role for the same writer, Peter Morgan, this time onstage, in The Audience. Her incisive performance again crackles with intelligence, acerbic wit and profound sensitivity. That she convincingly portrays Queen Elizabeth II at various points from her late 20s through to her 80s is further evidence of Mirren’s formidable technique.

If the vehicle is not quite equal to its commanding star in Stephen Daldry’s elegant production, that’s perhaps a symptom of the play’s episodic nature. Morgan’s screenplay for The Queen crafted full-bodied drama out of the fallout over the royal family’s response in the immediate wake of Princess Diana’s tragic death in 1997. But his new stage work is a series of vignettes fashioned out of the British sovereign’s weekly meetings with her prime ministers. Covering six decades, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron, the play is briskly entertaining but not exactly seamless in its blend of intimate character study, political chronicle and sophisticated sitcom.

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Given that the performance reviewed was only six days into previews, considerable tinkering no doubt took place in the remaining two weeks before its March 5 opening. But this is not as focused a drama as Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. Nor is it the automatic candidate for a Broadway transfer that theater pundits have been predicting. The play assumes a basic familiarity with British politics and social history that many Americans will lack. Nonetheless, if Mirren chooses to cross the Atlantic with it, her performance alone guarantees The Audience an audience. In the meantime, the production will travel when its London staging is streamed to movie theaters worldwide beginning June 13 as part of the National Theater Live series.

The title refers to the Queen’s regular weekly meeting with the country’s elected political leader, a closed-door chat in a room at Buckingham Palace rendered in sober grandeur by designer Bob Crowley. A fictionalized reconstruction of those undocumented encounters, the play concerns the tricky relationship between Crown and Government. It shows the ways -- at times blunt, at others indirect -- that the U.K.’s symbolic leader has influenced politics and the ways in which leading politicians have influenced her.

Morgan’s portrayal of this famously reserved real-life figure is even more openly admiring here than it was in The Queen, with a distinct liberal leaning that may irk conservative monarchists. In a moment of self-deprecating reflection, she alludes to the widespread perception of her as “a postage stamp with a pulse.” But what emerges is a politically astute woman of strong opinions, reined in by the constitutional limitations of her position. And despite her great wealth and privilege, she is defined in part by her ordinariness, an aspect nicely offset by the innate regality and poise of Mirren’s superbly measured performance.

That complex portrait gradually comes together through the Queen’s various audiences over the decades. The most illuminating of them are not with the expected political heavyweights but with Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe) and John Major (Paul Ritter), also the most satisfyingly developed of the play’s secondary characters.

Major is depicted as a figure ill-suited to public life, uncomfortable in his appointed role as successor to Margaret Thatcher, who arguably had left the most indelible imprint on the PM’s job of any British government head since Churchill. His insecurities set the tone for Mirren’s ineffably composed Queen to function as a kind of therapist in the sessions. But Major proves himself an ally to the royal family by serving as mediator during the very public breakdown of Prince Charles’ marriage to Diana. He also advises the Queen on countermeasures against the British public’s growing feeling that the monarchy is a luxury the country can no longer afford.

Morgan amusingly suggests that half of Britain’s prime ministers have been mildly dysfunctional, sleep-deprived and in need of medication to tame their disorders. That’s notably the case with Wilson, the Labour PM elected by a slender margin in 1964. In McCabe’s droll performance, he is introduced on the defensive, his common touch seemingly putting him at odds with the Queen. But their lively badinage steadily reveals a mutual respect and even affection. This is cemented in the sole scene set outside of Buckingham Palace, during Wilson’s visit to the royals’ summer residence at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. A subsequent audience during which he confides the health issues prompting his retirement in 1976 is among the play’s most emotionally affecting moments.

However, several of the prime ministers remain trapped within caricatured impersonation, a failing due as much to the writing as the performances.

Churchill (played at the reviewed performance by Robert Hardy, who has since been replaced by Edward Fox due to injury) is a crusty veteran. He takes Elizabeth’s inexperience as his cue to exercise a paternalistic upper hand with her, only to be surprised by the fledgling Queen’s acuity. Flustered at having to wait while HM wraps up a Cecil Beaton photo shoot, Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) attempts to whitewash Britain’s role in the Suez Crisis of 1956, and is also taken aback by her preparedness on the subject. Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker) is a voluble Scotsman whose OCD traits barely raise an eyebrow from the Queen. “Mental illness has been in my family for some time,” she comments matter-of-factly.

Rufus Wright has the most thankless role as Cameron, his scenes marked by self-consciously topical references plugged in for easy laughs. He also gets the unenviable task of voicing Morgan’s key point about his protagonist with some didactic character summation about the Queen representing an “unbroken line.”

While Tony Blair was almost as central to Morgan’s screenplay for The Queen as the title figure, that PM is conspicuously absent here, though acknowledged via the occasional barbed mention. Instead the play’s principal clash is between the two most influential women in modern British history, the Queen and Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne). Storming into their audience in a huff about public criticism by the monarch of the PM’s uncompassionate policies, Thatcher comes off as a predictable dragon-lady cartoon – overbearing and manipulative. If The Iron Lady was too soft on her, Morgan’s treatment is reductive and lacking in delicacy.

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However, in dramatizing the Queen’s powerlessness to oppose Thatcher on the question of government sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa, the encounter opens a window into her deeply felt loyalty toward the Commonwealth nations. The play proves insightful in this respect -- and in the related observation that the Queen’s ties to the Commonwealth have made it difficult for Britain to commit to the European Union.

Despite the nagging feeling that this is less a fluid drama than a patchwork portrait of a single character, Daldry steers things along at a pleasingly steady pace, nailing a surprising number of laughs as well as moments of poignancy. As disconcerting as it is to witness HM delivering zingers, Mirren pulls them off with aplomb. And while the recurring device of having the adult Elizabeth dialoguing with her girlhood self is cumbersome, Mirren’s cool authority makes it work. Those scenes also contribute to Morgan’s broader assessment of the personal sacrifices and compromises that come with the role.

Handsomely costumed by Crowley, Mirren is onstage virtually throughout the play’s two hours plus, her quick changes between various nonchronological decades carried out in view of the audience but artfully concealed by a flurry of royal staff. Through her bearing and subtle modulations of voice, the actress confidently navigates a 60-year span. But more important, she locates the heartbeat and the nimble intellect beneath the institutional facade. If the dramaturgy has its weaknesses, the performance is unimpeachable.

Venue: Gielgud Theatre, London (runs through June 15)
Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Elwyn, Haydn Gwynne, Edward Fox, Richard McCabe, Nathaniel Parker, Paul Ritter, Rufus Wright, David Peart, Geoffrey Beevers, Bebe Cave, Maya Gerber, Nell Williams, Harry Feltham, Matt Plumb, Spencer Kitchen, Jonathan Coote, Ian Houghton, Charlotte Moore
Director: Stephen Daldry
Playwright: Peter Morgan
Set & costume designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Rick Fisher
Music: Paul Englishby
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Presented by Matthew Byam Shaw, Robert Fox, Andy Harries