NEW YORK – The new English import, “The Audience,” concerns Queen Elizabeth II and is played magnificently by the great actress Helen Mirren. Peter Morgan’s play zeros in on the Queen’s weekly meetings with eight of the 12 prime ministers whom she has encountered during her 63-year reign. The Queen turns 89 on April 21.
Ms. Mirren has pertly impersonated a good many first ladies of England. In 2006, she won an Academy Award playing Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” giving us an intimate look at the royal family dealing with the death of Princess Diana, with a brilliant screenplay also penned by Mr. Morgan. She played Elizabeth I in the 2005 television series, and in 1994 in the film “The Madness of King George,” she was the king’s wife, Queen Charlotte of Meckleborg-Strelitz.
Under the care of Mr. Morgan and director Stephen Daldry, “The Audience” artfully and with great theatrical effect ricochets chronologically around Elizabeth II’s meetings at Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle in Scotland with various PMs. One moment, she is a confident, time-honored, elderly monarch with whitish hair, in a conservative pink dress, giving Prime Minister John Major (Dylan Baker), 1990-97, a handkerchief to wipe away some tears; minutes later, she is suddenly transformed into a dark-haired, 26-year-old Elizabeth II, in a black dress, still mourning her father’s death, trying to greet her first prime minister, Winston Churchill (1940-45,1951-55), in his late 70’s, a sickly but lofty figure.
Ms. Mirren never flinches in going from one age to another. Changes of hair and costumes of six decades don’t bother her.
Her favorite prime minister seems to be Harold Wilson (1964-70,1974-76), played touchingly by British actor Richard McCabe.
The exquisite sets and costumes by Bob Crowley and the hair and make-up by Ivana Primorac give the production a sense of true royal éclat.
Ms. Mirren’s majestic performance is, of course, the main reason to see “The Audience.” Her acting as the monarch is completely honest, vivid and intense, and, yes, even humorous a few times. Ms. Mirren makes every gesture, every glance meaningful.
The play has been fabricated by Mr. Morgan; none of the meetings between Elizabeth and the prime ministers is recorded or chronicled by a secretary. Whatever information is in “The Audience” has been either passed down by a prime minister or speculated upon by insiders or the newspapers. Mr. Morgan does the best he can with whatever he has been able to cobble together. With an actress of Ms. Mirren’s talent, we do get an added dimension of the queen’s inner life and the solitude all royals, from those in Shakespeare’s works to “The Audience,” seem to share.
Walter Bagehot (1826-77), a great historian and an editor of The Economist, long ago pointed out that in a constitutional monarchy, the king and queen do not have the authority to contradict policy. Mr. Bagehot said they should only be consulted to advise and to warn. Of course, for the theater, unfortunately, this rules out dramatic conflict, which becomes a slight problem for “The Audience.” The play is not a pageant, but a lot of Elizabeth’s audiences with the PM’s are sketches rather than real theatrical drama. Once again, Ms. Mirren’s acting skill makes the scenes livelier than the playwright is able to achieve.
Mr. Morgan’s idea is to show the human side of the queen. Whenever Ms. Mirren finds a moment, she gets to turn up the queen’s emotional wattage. There are a few times we see Elizabeth’s political growth. Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1955-57), played by Michael Elwyn, backed England and France when they invaded Egypt in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the Suez Canal. From a third party, we learn that the British sovereign opposed it. Though Mr. Eden denied that, he did resign two months later. Elizabeth later brings up the Suez crisis, comparing it to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s (Rufus Wright) support of George W. Bush’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Elizabeth II’s temperature seems to rise when Prime Minister John Major relates Diana’s feeling about the royals’ monetary behavior, and when Prime Minister Thatcher (Judith Ivey) arrives at Buckingham Place like a house on fire, complaining about royal leaks to the press regarding her policies.
Although the talents of Mr. Morgan and Mr. Daldry have made huge contributions to “The Audience,” it is still more of a spectacle than a play, and it is most enjoyable because of Ms. Mirren, She builds the character of Elizabeth nicely and the play serves to bring back this flawless actress to the Broadway stage for anyone who is lucky enough to see her at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street. In London, they are getting ready to revive a new production of “The Audience” with the film star Kristen Scott Thomas. It will be interesting to see her take on the monarch.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.