by Samuel L. Leiter
I was in the sixth grade in 1952 when Elizabeth II became Queen of England, a year before her internationally televised coronation. Her almost always unruffled, dignified, royal presence for over 60 years, despite various scandals, tragedies, and contretemps within the British monarchy, has been one of the few signs of stability in the postwar world. However, given the controlled nature of such things, her private persona is something of a mystery to the general public. The opportunity to get to know her better, even if only through her representation by a superb actress, is at least partly responsible for the success of the 2006 movie, The Queen, written by Peter Morgan and starring Dame Helen Mirren in an Academy Award-winning performance; it’s also a likely driving force behind yet another Morgan-Mirren Queen Elizabeth production, The Audience, now on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, following its West End success in 2013 for which Mirren won an Olivier Award.
The Queen focuses mainly on Elizabeth’s relationship with Prime Minister Tony Blair regarding the official reaction to the death of Princess Diana. The Audience is also devoted to examining the monarch-PM connection, but instead of dealing with one PM it introduces eight of the twelve in power during Elizabeth’s reign. Blair was absent from the London version but (as played by Rufus Wright) he does a cameo on Broadway, insisting on supporting the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a move with which the queen disagrees. The politicians with whom the play is chiefly concerned are Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews), Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn), Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey), John Major (Dylan Baker), Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan), and David Cameron (Rufus Wright, again).
As we learn from the queen’s equerry (Geoffrey Beevers), a uniformed official who serves as a sort of guide to the proceedings, it’s been the queen’s custom since her ascension to hold 20-minute meetings every Tuesday with her prime minister, during which she’s filled in on that week’s political developments, but must resist commenting on them. Morgan, needing to create dramatic tension, occasionally finds ways for Elizabeth to express her differing opinion on matters.
These are confidential, unrecorded chats, but Morgan has concocted what he imagines might have transpired. Elizabeth emerges as a savvy political animal; although she adheres to such conservative beliefs as her divine right to rule (when Princess Diana’s disdain for the monarchy is reported), she also reveals liberal-leaning views, including support for the working man and an opposition to South African apartheid.
Morgan’s episodic, unchronological arrangement of meetings is aimed primarily at introducing the personalities of the many prime ministers. Sometimes he makes pointed reference to an important political issue, such as Anthony Eden’s mishandling of the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956; Sir Anthony’s arguments for war precisely reflect those later used by Blair for going into Iraq.
The Audience, while giving a sort of Cliff’s Notes overview of British history during the past six decades, allows each prime minister just enough time to demonstrate whatever quirks of personality he or she may best be known for, and to present the various class and educational differences among them. At times the sessions serve as opportunities for the PM’s to unload their emotional burdens, much as if the queen were a maternal stand-in for a shrink. For all its dramaturgic thinness, the play is nonetheless continually stimulating.
Making full use of Bob Crowley’s impressive sets (he also did the terrific costumes) for Buckingham Palace and Scotland’s Balmoral Castle, Stephen Daldry’s imaginative staging has fun with the pomp and circumstance provided by the equerry and his two perfectly coordinated, liveried footmen (Graydon Long and Jason Loughlin). Their duties include—with the help of others—aiding the star make almost instantaneous onstage costume and wig changes (hair and makeup by Ivana Primorac) as the action moves back and forth in time. Paul Englishby’s original background score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.
While all the supporting performers (several are from the London company) are excellent (including a pair of Corgis), the takeaways are McCabe as the progressive Harold Wilson and Ivey as the conservative Thatcher. The former brings a common man touch to the leftwing Wilson, demonstrating why he was one of the queens’ favorites.
As for the latter, well, this is the Iron Lady, of course. Thatcher’s big scene, in which she rushes in to upbraid the queen about making inappropriate public comments, captures the woman’s patronizing, imperious tone. But Ivey, a bit heftier than Thatcher in her prime, isn’t at all the mirror image Meryl Streep provided onscreen in The Iron Lady.
And then, of course, there’s the magnificent Helen Mirren, every inch the queen; she makes the enormously wealthy but penny-pinching Elizabeth smart, dutiful, human, firm, accessible, and funny (the queen calls herself “a postage stamp with a pulse”), altering her behavior and voice to reflect the different ages she must portray. While she has no grandstanding scenes, Mirren’s natural authority and the subtlety with which she offers nuance upon nuance to her performance make seeing her a must. Kristin Scott Thomas, who will be assuming the role when the play is revived in London this spring, has her work cut out for her.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W. 45th Street, NYC
Through June 28
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).