Helen Mirren Shows Us Queen Elizabeth through the Years in “The Audience” — She Is No Push-over

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Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

In her 63-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has met on most Tuesday evenings with the current prime minister.  These conversations are intended for the prime minister to inform the Queen of what has the government has done and is planning on doing.  She has no say in the matter.

The Audience which is now at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater is play based on these meetings.  Helen Mirren plays the Queen from 1952, just after her ascension to the throne, to very recently.  Mirren, you may remember, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth in the film The Queen also written by Peter Morgan, the author of this work. Mirren also won an Olivier (the British equivalent of the Tony) for her performance in this role in London in 2013.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

Her performance here is remarkable — the play is not told in chronological order — so Mirren is forced to quickly change costumes and decades in just a matter of seconds. She adjusts her voice, her posture and her tone seamlessly.

Her performance is matched by fine performances by many of the actors playing the prime ministers. Eight of the 12 prime ministers are depicted on stage though Tony Blair is given very short shrift.

First of all, we must remember that no-one except the Queen and the prime minister in question knows what goes on in these meetings — no minutes or notes are kept. So this play is totally fiction based on some sketchy facts. But we see prime ministers who sometimes reveal insecurities and at other times attempt to lecture or push her.  On the Queen’s part, she is both quiet and at times revealing. You get the sense that while she has no constitutional authority, she does have influence.

Yet for those who enjoy fine acting, for anglophiles and for rhose interested in politics and history this is a satisfying production.

It opens with the Queen’s Equerry (Geoffrey Beevers) setting the scene for us including a detailed description of the furniture (antiques) in the audience room.  Then we meet Mirren, later in her reign with John Major, who admits that he is not sure he was cut out to be PM.

Quickly — I defy you to see the costume change — we meet the very new Queen in 1952 who has her first meeting with Winston Churchill.  It is here that we discover even as a young Queen she is well aware of the political realities surrounding her — Churchill delaying her investiture to keep himself in power — and we see the seasoned politician “schooling” her in the protocol of these meetings.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

And so we parade through a list of prime ministers.  Blair barely appears — telling the Queen about his decision to support Pres. Bush in the Iraq invasion — there are jokes made about him, by both his successor (Gordon Brown) and the Queen.

Some of the Prime Ministers try to push the Queen — John Major reports on trying to reconcile Prince Charles and Princess Diana and some of the anti-monarchy comments Diana expressed as well as others who tried to get her to give up the royal yacht; she eventually did.

Throughout the play, we see her 11-year-old self (Lisbeth as she was called) who is both learning and rebelling from her future responsibilities.

Some scenes stand out — there are multiple scenes with Harold Wilson, the Queen’s first Labour PM — we see Wilson on his first meeting, a subsequent one at Balmoral where the summer meetings take place, and later on when he tells her of his decision to resign.  At least according to Morgan, Wilson may have been her favorite and he came to admire her even suggesting that there was a “good Labour woman” underneath.

Helen Mirren and Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson. Photo by Joan Marcus
Helen Mirren and Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson. Photo by Joan Marcus

Another scene that stands out — is the scene with Anthony Eden who tells the Queen of the invasion with France of the Suez Canal — a foreign policy blunder that both cost lives and prestige.  The Queen’s comments and questions to him and his responses are an eerie echo of Blair’s exchange with her 50 years later.

One scene does not work for any number of reasons.  It is the scene between the Queen and a very angry Margaret Thatcher.  Thatcher is angry over some leaks in the press from “high Palace sources” indicating that the Queen dislikes Thatcher’s policies.  As Thatcher testily reminds the Queen, her role is to agree.

The problem with this scene is not just its stridency  but that it comes rather in the play when we have developed an affection for the Queen.  So Thatcher berating her just annoys us.  It is not helped by the performance of Judith Ivey as Thatcher.  After Meryl Streep’s brilliant performance as Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady, this may be an unplayable role. But Ivey’s accent is as much Southern as British and her strident manner as well as a very unattractive striped suit result in us wanting the scene to end.

Overall the cast is excellent from Geoffrey Beevers as the Equerry to the brief performances of Dakin Matthews (Churchill),  Rufus Wright (David Cameron and Tony Blair), Michael Elwyn (Sir Anthony Eden), Dylan Baker (John Major) and Sadie Sink (Young Elizabeth).  Sink rotates in the role.

But it is Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson who has the largest role among the PMs and he makes the most of it from the slightly awkward new PM until the touching scene at the end of his career.

The design by Bob Crowley captures the splendor of Buckingham Palace as well as the Scottish coziness of Balmoral.  He is aided by the fine lighting by Rick Fisher which keeps our attention focused.  Ivana Primorac has done the hair and make-up design to help Mirren move from middle-aged to young to old and back again.

Stephen Daldry has directed this production to keep it moving; the exception is the scene with Thatcher that seems to much of a one note rant.

Helen Mirren and Dakin Matthews as Winston Churchill. Photo by Joan Marcus
Helen Mirren and Dakin Matthews as Winston Churchill. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Audience is an enjoyable evening in the theater made really special by the fine performances. You can expect Mirren to clean up in the season’s awards programs.

It is running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through June 28. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

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