26th February, 2013
Please note that I saw The Audience during previews when the production was still going through rehearsals. This review certainly contains spoilers.
Peter Morgan recently admitted in an interview with The Telegraph that he was worried that audiences might just see his new play as a series of impressions as there’s no single story. Admittedly, The Audience could’ve easily been criticised as a piece of commercial theatre that lures audience members to the performances of a myriad of Prime Ministers and Helen Mirren as the Queen, the role which won her the Academy Award for best actress for The Queen in 2006 (for which Peter Morgan wrote the screenplay). What manifests though is a theatrical masterclass in acting, play writing and directing in what is surely one of the highlights of theatre in 2013.
The Audience, which explores the Queen’s relationship with most of her 12 Prime Ministers throughout her reign seeing Mirren go through a series of quick changes, is a play of binaries. First of all, there’s the difference between fact that the play is based on and the fiction of the imagined conversations of which the play consists, but we also see the contrast of private conversations being made public in a theatre as well as the binary of HM and the PM sitting across from each other in one room. Furthermore, there’s also the difference between Elizabeth as a young girl (excellently portrayed by Bebe Cave at my performance) and Elizabeth II as the head of state with duty and responsibility upon her. Onstage, they are portrayed by two different actors (Cave and Mirren) which fittingly reflects how a person’s identity can be two-fold when they are restrained by duty, beautifully performed in a poignant moment which reminded me of The Duchess of Malfi.
The title refers to the audience between the Queen and the Prime Minister but it also alludes to the theatre audience and with such a theatrical title there are plenty of other moments where The Audience is self-conscious as a piece of theatre. For instance, when walking into the auditorium, we see a completely bare black stage. The play then opens with the Queen’s Equerry walking on stage and directly addressing the audience to tell us the protocol of every Tuesday when the meeting takes place in audience room, which soon appears behind him.
The performances are all superb, but there are some which stand out more than others. Mirren is onstage nearly for the whole play aging and de-aging not only with quick costume and wig changes but also in stance, voice and attitude. She brilliantly captures both a sense of truth and humour in the monarch which ensures she doesn’t just portray a symbol. Paul Ritter’s understated performance as John Major shows us insight into the private life of a Prime Minister especially when he tears up in the first scene after revealing how he didn’t have many prospects. John McCabe also gives a comic and popular performance as the ‘humble northerner’ Harold Wilson. He is astounded by the grandeur of Buckingham Palace, asks for photos with Her Majesty and backs out of the room bowing after his first sitting with her, his down-to-earth nature understandably making him her favourite Prime Minister. And Haydn Gwynne gives a brilliantly powerful performance of a powerful woman as her extremely accurate Margaret Thatcher. Her scene is bookended with ‘Your Majesty’ and a curtsey, her voice instantly recognisable as the woman who appears distant and cold with the Queen. The way they sit, they’re legs pointing away from each other, provides a mirror image, suggesting that they’re perhaps both too alike in some ways to get along. Before she rushes onto the stage Mirren delivers a line with the word ‘she’ which prompts us to realise that it’s Thatcher who intimidates all of the Palace’s staff.
The day I saw the play, it was announced that Robert Hardy had withdrawn from the production due to an injury and will be replaced by Edward Fox. However, at the start of Tuesday evening’s performance, director Stephen Daldry came onto the stage to announce that the company wish Hardy well and that his understudy David Peart will play both James Callaghan and Winston Churchill. He seemed to be line perfect on the night and greatly conveyed a man who was firmly settled down in his job and set in his ways in a mourning Queen’s first audience meeting.
Peter Morgan’s play is extremely clever and well-structured. Act one is framed by John Major’s scenes with the latter one seeing Mirren perform with an extremely convincing cold. However, it’s also a scene which is referred to at the start of act one, exemplifying how the play isn’t linear or chronological. The second act is framed with scenes containing Harold Wilson, the first of which sees a nice change of scenery being set in a rainy Balmoral after the Queen has walked her two corgis (which are later seen again on stage at the end of the play). The end of the play also sees the Queen state how ultimately it’s the Prime Ministers who are the more important ones and that she has gone “down the line”. The word ‘line’ not only reflects how the PMs are all standing in a line behind her but also echoes back to a line at the end of act one when an angry Queen (after arguing about the decommissioning of Britannia to John Major and how she has spent her life committing herself to this country) insists that “the line must be drawn somewhere”.
Some of the quick changes are done onstage hidden behind a group of dressers that stand around Her Majesty’s desk and you don’t even notice that they’re happening at times. Paul Englishby’s music is wonderful as is a visually impressive scene in act two in which the Queen is having a photo shoot behind a gauze. Peter Morgan said that his priority was to give his audience a good night out and this is certainly what the audience is given, particularly in the David Cameron scene which has been kept up to date with satirical touches such as the Queen’s iPhone going off with a Gangnam Style ringtone, the Queen mocking her amount of security, a jibe at the apparent state of the coalition and a punchy side remark about the Queen not being able to retire or abdicate – ‘like the Pope’.
I have plenty more to say about The Audience but ultimately it is a play about what it means to be British and about the British constitution, but with a stellar cast and a brilliant script and creative team, this is an extremely entertaining production which is not to be missed.
For The Audience, I queued for over two and a quarter hours in the cold to get a front row centre day seat for £10 and it was completely worth it. A worthy standing ovation was given at the end and the cast seemed quite surprised when the curtain came up for an extra time.
The Audience is playing at the Gielgud Theatre, London until 15th June and is being broadcast live as part of NT Live to cinemas around the UK on the 13th June as well as to cinemas around the world at a later date.