Long live the Queen! Long live Queen Helen! Helen Mirren won an Oscar in 2007 for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth around the time of Princess Diana’s death in “The Queen.” It made a nice companion piece for the Emmy she’d won in 2005 for playing another British queen in the TV mini-series “Elizabeth I.” Maybe she’ll add a Tony to her collection for her triumphant return to Buckingham Palace in “The Audience,” Peter Morgan’s royally entertaining glimpse into the private weekly meetings at which the current Prime Minister brings the sitting monarch up to snuff on political affairs of state.
Under the stylized helming of Stephen Daldry, who also directed the 2013 West End production, a stately Equerry (Geoffrey Beevers) steps forward to introduce each of the prime ministers who advised Queen Elizabeth over the sixty years of her reign. (A program insert offers an assist for American audiences who can’t quite place James Callaghan.)
Designer Bob Crowley’s imposing setting for these tête-à-têtes is the Audience Room in Buckingham Palace, a grandly scaled space framed by massive pillars and, through the illusion of forced perspective, giving onto a long corridor that leads to the Throne Room. This majestic space doesn’t exactly match up with the Equerry’s description of a less forbidding room painted in “duck-egg blue” and warmed by a fireplace. But it certainly conveys the sense of majesty that would intimidate many a brand new PM.
Morgan, who also penned the screenplay for “The Queen,” doesn’t keep to a chronological time span or pursue a dominant theme. The fundamental appeal for an audience is watching the various prime ministers display their goods for the Queen and observing Mirren’s subtle skills at adjusting her age, voice, physical presence and state of mind to reflect (or try to hide) her feelings about each of these politicians.
Mirren is positively endearing as the young Queen Elizabeth, eagerly addressing Sir Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews, eerily realistic) at her first audience with a list of informed and thoughtful questions about the state of the postwar Empire — only to be told rather brusquely, in one of the more riveting scenes in the play, that her role is to shut up and listen to him.
Over the years (and through a number of lightning-quick onstage costume and wig changes), Lilibet, as Churchill affectionately calls the young monarch, becomes a shrewd judge of character and adept at maintaining the rigidly noncommittal political stance expected of her. (“It is my duty not to have preferences,” she sharply reminds someone who thinks otherwise.) But the scribe does grant her a lot of (frankly, unconvincing) freedom to voice her private thoughts to her Prime Ministers and to favor one over another on a personal level.
As Morgan would have it, her favorite was the down-to-earth Labour Party leader Harold Wilson (an old dear, in Richard McCabe’s warm-hearted performance), which does seem likely, since she extended to him alone (aside from Churchill) the rare endorsement of inviting herself to dine with him at 10 Downing Street. Their scenes together are critical to this schematic play, because they lend it a tone of honest emotion.
Fully appreciating this need to move an audience, the scribe invents some otherworldly appearances by a young Lilibet (very nicely played by Elizabeth Teeter, who alternates in the role with Sadie Sink) to interact with and greatly humanize her older self.
So, yes, theatrical allowances are made for such injections of heart. Just the same, it’s hard to believe that any politician, even a softie like Harold Wilson, would make so free with the Queen as to tell her that “You’re one of us,” or to suggest that “There’s a good Labour lady in there.”
That does seem to be where Morgan is leading her, though, by allowing her to indiscreetly voice some strong political opinions that are very liberal, indeed. Since no records whatsoever are kept of these weekly briefings, there’s no way of knowing whether the Queen did, indeed, beg the imperious Sir Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn, an aristocrat down to his boots) not to go to war over the Suez Canal. Or try to stop Tony Blair (Rufus Wright) from sending an invading force into Iraq.
The real showdown, though, is between Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey), who slaps the monarch down like a naughty child when she makes a good case for sanctions against South Africa. In theory and substance, this should be the strongest scene in the play. But it’s painfully over-the-top dramatically and given a caricatured reading by Ivey, whose performance is as overdone as the ghastly fright-wig of the Iron Lady’s famous helmet-hair.
Although the level of realism fluctuates from meeting to meeting held in the Audience Room, the two most electrifying scenes in the play take place outside that room. The first is the extraordinary wartime radio address that the 14-year-old princess Elizabeth delivered in 1940 to the children of the commonwealth. The other is the fall-on-your-knees investiture scene at the end of Act I in which the 25-year-old Elizabeth is robed and anointed and crowned as Queen — “half human, half apostolic avenging angel,” as Morgan would have it.
At moments like this, we are all the adoring subjects of this Queen.