'The Audience': Theater Review

The Audience Production Still - H 2015
Joan Marcus

The Audience Production Still - H 2015

Have tiara, will travel.

Helen Mirren reteams with Peter Morgan, her screenwriter on 'The Queen,' to revisit the role that earned her an Oscar.

Geoffrey Beevers plays Queen Elizabeth II's starchy equerry-in-waiting in The Audience, opening the play and then returning at intervals to sketch in the historical background, illuminate the rituals of etiquette and even talk us through the decor of the room at Buckingham Palace in which the British sovereign holds weekly catch-up meetings with her prime minister. The equerry functions as a guide, which is appropriate, since Peter Morgan has written not so much a play as a high-toned Anglophile tourist attraction; a reverent theme-park ride through six decades of crown and government. And while the writing only occasionally transcends its episodic construction, Helen Mirren's regally inhabited performance makes it a nuanced character study.

This is Mirren's second time playing Her Majesty, having won an Oscar in 2007 for Stephen Frears' The Queen, which also was written by Morgan. But while that film built dramatic tension into the rippling aftereffects of Princess Diana's death, The Audience remains an elegantly linked series of vignettes. Director Stephen Daldry appears to have felt the need to broaden the subtle comedy of his London hit for American tastes, which further exposes the patchwork nature of Morgan's writing. But it's an exemplary showcase for Mirren's cool authority, keen understanding of character and astonishing transformative skills.

The encounters covered in nonchronological order span from Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) in 1952, when 25-year-old Elizabeth just had lost her father and was awaiting coronation, through to current PM David Cameron (Rufus Wright), who causes the queen, now 86 in the play, to nod off while he recaps the outcome of a European summit.

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There are sparks of conflict in Elizabeth's unsettled exchange with Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) over the erupting 1956 Suez Crisis, which drew Britain and France into Israel's invasion of Egypt, as well as in watching a patronizing Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey) bully the queen to "fall in line" on the government's opposition to sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa. But the most substantial drama in Morgan's play is internal, embodied in the barrier between the British sovereign's constitutional limitations and her very human sense of compassion, loyalty and social engagement. Mirren plays this inherent divide with a conviction that's no less moving for its restraint.

The queen's deep ties to the Commonwealth of Nations are a stirring recurrent theme, explored most probingly in the Thatcher interlude. However, this is among the play's more heavy-handed passages, not helped by the miscast Ivey's struggle to get beyond gorgonlike impersonation. (It worked no better in London with Haydn Gwynne in the role.) But it does acquire poignancy when Morgan segues to a speech given by the young Princess Elizabeth (Sadie Sink and Elizabeth Teeter alternate in the role) from Cape Town, South Africa, in 1947, in which she dedicates her life to "our great imperial family." While anti-royalists will bristle, the transition underlines the selfless sense of duty ingrained in this portrayal, measured against the political realities of a government in which the queen is purely a symbolic figurehead. Her advice may be influential, even when it's implied rather than stated, but in matters of state, she's officially powerless.

The interactions between the central character’s adult and younger selves are a cumbersome device. And yet there's pathos in the outspoken princess' struggle to reconcile renouncing the freedoms of an unobserved life, while the more mature Elizabeth provides firm but wistful reminders of her constricting responsibilities.

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The most emotionally insightful encounters are the queen's meetings with John Major (an almost unrecognizable Dylan Baker), whose insecurities about his suitability for high office are compounded by his being elected in Thatcher's daunting wake, and especially with Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), an unpretentious old leftie who perceives a kindred spirit beneath Elizabeth's regal remove.

Morgan's take on the queen in these fictionalized meetings is daubed in skewed sentiment, but Mirren sells it with impeccable finesse. The playwright finds poignancy in his protagonist's indebtedness to Major for guiding her through the public's growing distance from the monarchy, as well as in her understated but evident affection for Wilson, who starts their association on the defensive but forges a relaxed camaraderie as he shares his self-doubts. McCabe and Baker take full advantage of playing the most fully drawn of the PM characters, giving relatable performances that provide an entertaining counterpoint to Mirren's poise.

The other key figures are mostly quick sketches, with Matthews' crusty, self-servingly paternalistic Churchill and Elwyn's ever-so-plummy but flustered Eden making the strongest impressions. Tony Blair, who was so central to The Queen, is represented here mainly as the butt of a handful of jokes. However, one significant addition to the text since London is a brief appearance by him (played by Wright) on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq; this allows for a perturbed response from Elizabeth that echoes her rueful conversation with Eden.

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Morgan's fanciful through-line is that the position of head of the British government almost invariably attracts brilliant but dysfunctional minds — lonely, depressed, sleep-deprived obsessive-compulsives, torn between the desire to lead and the need to be respected, even loved. And the queen represents an anchor of unwavering stability, or "an unbroken line," as Cameron puts it.

Daldry perhaps underestimates the material's potential to keep Americans absorbed, leaning heavily on the humor throughout, to the point where both Elizabeth and her PMs appear to be delivering barbed punch lines. One slip in which Her Majesty indiscreetly reveals that her husband couldn't bear Blair prompts a funny "oops" moment that's as much Dame Edna as Dame Helen. The number of double takes that pepper the banter threatens to rival those in Larry David's Fish in the Dark. But if there's a hint of sitcom, Mirren's acerbity makes it a "veddy British" sitcom, which is no bad thing. It's marvelous what she can convey with just a quick turn of her head or a widening of her eyes.

Aside from a brief stop at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, designer Bob Crowley's single imposing Buckingham Palace set is a solemn marble backdrop with a forced perspective suggesting both the isolation and the vital connection of this very private chamber to other halls of power. Crowley's costumes, along with Ivana Primorac's superb wigs, provide moments of dazzling pomp and splendor, such as Elizabeth's coronation or the famous Cecil Beaton photo shoot, as well as crisp, everyday efficiency.

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The masterstroke of Daldry's staging is to have the majority of Mirren's decade-hopping transformations take place in view of the audience. Attendants gather around the queen to perform quick changes that take her from a svelte young woman to a stout octogenarian matron and several points in between. And the actress shows the passage of time with skilled modulations of her voice, posture, movement and demeanor. The play might be a fragmented portrait, but it's nonetheless a full-bodied one, in which Mirren does a graceful jete across the years from the savvy diplomatic novice to the shrewd veteran observer.

"All of your PMs would agree; you have a way of saying nothing, yet making your view perfectly clear," Cameron tells her, summing up a sphinxlike countenance that also could describe Mirren's effortlessly controlled performance.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Dylan Baker, Geoffrey Beevers, Michael Elwyn, Judith Ivey, Dakin Matthews, Richard McCabe, Rod McLachlan, Rufus Wright, Anthony Cochrane, Graydon Long, Jason Loughlin, Michael Rudko, Henny Russell, Tracy Sallows, Sadie Sink, Elizabeth Teeter, Tony Ward

Director: Stephen Daldry

Playwright: Peter Morgan

Set & costume designer: Bob Crowley

Lighting designer: Rick Fisher

Music: Paul Englishby

Sound designer: Paul Arditti

Hair & makeup designer: Ivana Primorac

Presented by Matthew Byam Shaw, Robert Fox, Andy Harries, M. Beverly Bartner, Scott M. Delman, Ed Mirvish Enterprises Limited, Stephanie P. McClelland, MSG WLE, Jon B. Platt, Scott Rudin, Carole Shorenstein Hays, The Shubert Organization, Alice Tulchin