Helen Mirren in The Audience.
Perhaps under different circumstances, Queen Elizabeth II might have made a particularly shrewd therapist. At least that’s the overriding impression that theatergoers are given while watching Peter Morgan’s marvelous new play The Audience and Helen Mirren’s dazzlingly humane, warm, and funny portrayal of the British monarch.
This description might sound a bit reductive, nevertheless it appears to be one of the goals of Morgan’s script. Late in the show, the Queen shares the stage with a younger incarnation of herself. It’s not the first time it has happened: the fleetly time-bending piece zips back and forth from the 1930s to present with agility, and in addition to MIrren as the Queen from 1951 forward, there are childhood portrayals of her by Elizabeth Teeter and Sadie Sink, who play alternating performances.
During this last encounter between the adult and childhood Elizabeth, the younger one announces that she’s learned about the role and history of the prime minister in school and from her lessons has gleaned that “Basically they’re all mad.”
Morgan’s play centers on private meetings that Queen Elizabeth has each week with her prime ministers, and during the course of these conversations, with eight (from Winston Churchill through David Cameron), matters of state are discussed, as well as personal matters. In Morgan’s imagination (remember no one knows what happens during these “in camera” sessions), the Queen becomes an advice-giver and sage counsel.
Morgan’s conceit means that The Audience, while functioning as a bio-drama, never has the feeling of being a show in which factual details are being dutifully laid out for theatergoers’ edification. Yes, all of the details--and some scandals--are referenced, from the moment that her father took over the throne to her own coronation to the unhappy marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. But they, along with many others, are couched within the context of highly informal and often deliciously humorous exchanges.
Mirren’s ability to embrace the zinging wit that Morgan has given the queen is just one of the many delights to be found in her astonishing, chameleon-like performance. Audiences will most likely remember well after the curtain has fallen how Mirren manages to seemingly age and then travel back in time before their eyes. She rarely leaves the stage (which, thanks to scenic designer Bob Crowley, makes the grandeur of Buckingham Palace palpable), and as the play travels back and forth between decades, a trio of dressers all clad in black surround Mirren. When they retreat, a jaw-dropping transformation of the star has been effected. She’s outfitted in yet another period-perfect outfit (the detail-rich costumes are also by Crowley) and hairdo (designed by Ivana Primorac). It’s theatrical magic of the highest order.
The performance, though, should not be savored merely for this technique, but also for its stunning and often gentle details. One such moment comes early on when the tradition-bound Churchill (a sterling performance from Dakin Matthews) attempts to tell the monarch-in-waiting about what is expected of her. There comes a moment when his advice sinks in, and a gentle expression of defeat and hopelessness crosses Mirren’s face as Elizabeth realizes exactly what she can expect in life because of her role and what she will have to sacrifice. Mirren’s work here proves simply heartbreaking.
In addition to Matthews, there are another six masterful performers to assume the roles of prime minister. Perhaps most notable is Richard McCabe’s incorrigibly garrulous turn as the earthy Labour Party leader Harold Wilson. He charms Elizabeth (and audiences) thoroughly, and if there’s one slight flaw in Morgan’s writing, it’s the awkwardly blunt way in which he ultimately points toward Wilson as being this man as having been Elizabeth’s favorite.
Dylan Baker takes on the role of PM John Major and imbues the man with a spiky nervousness. Judith Ivey’s work as Margaret Thatcher has a gruff directness to it that feels entirely appropriate. Michael Elwyn cuts a swell figure as the dapper Anthony Eden, the man who has a central role in the Suez Crisis in the 1950s, and in his more modern counterpart, Rob McLachlan makes for a dour Gordon Brown, the man who agreed to England’s participation in the Iraq War. And in Rufus Wright, director Stephen Daldry, who has staged The Audience immaculately, finds a performer who can play both Labour Party PM Tony Blair and the sitting prime minister, David Cameron, a member of England’s conservative party.
With each of these people, Mirren’s Elizabeth listens intently, looks away in embarrassment when things get awkward, and sometimes just exudes an oddly maternal warmth (but not with Thatcher) as they deliver the news of the week. It’s a fascinating, and ultimately moving, peek behind the closed doors at Buckingham Palace.
---- Andy Propst
The Audience plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: theaudiencebroadway.com.