After Helen Mirren’s star turn as her majesty in The Queen which was excellently scripted by Peter Morgan, a play about the Queen written by Morgan and starring Mirren sounded like a great idea.
And… our monarch really ought to pay Morgan and Mirren some sort of PR fee, because ‘The Audience’ is excellent.
The script is deliciously witty with wry observations and emotional moments throughout. The ‘audience’ of the title is a reference to the confidential weekly meetings that take place between the Queen and the prime minister of the day. The play revolves around these meetings, with the setting mostly happening at Buckingham Palace with a brief relocation to Balmoral for one of the most hilarious scenes in the play.
I had wondered beforehand how Morgan would weave together the various meetings and prevent them from becoming disjointed anecdotes. However, Morgan has imagined audiences with particular prime ministers and not fallen into the obvious trap of arranging them chronologically. Instead, sensitively and subtly, he has chosen to follow the theme of the Queen’s growing realisation of her role within these meetings and the extent of power she wields.
Mirren does a fantastic job of conveying the various forms of power Elizabeth II has from her motherly warmth that inspires the wretched confidences of the likes of John Major, the eagle-eyed attention to detail that catches Anthony Eden at a cover-up and the warmth that inspires friendship from Labour’s Harold Wilson. The limitations of her power too are highlighted, including with a notable scene where she clashes with Margaret Thatcher. All with the oddities of royal life thrown in (and a few scene stealing dashes on stage by some adorable corgis).
My favourite scene has to be the back and forth Wilson and the Queen indulge in at Balmoral, in which Wilson indulges in teasing her majesty of the decor, her German roots and the ridiculousness that comes with her privileges. For that scene, she becomes normal, her armour of being an advisor, confidante and royal personage stripped away to reveal your average, jolly lady (albeit one who has a castle or two and hilariously has to ring the butler for a book).
The set design is simple but works, evoking the right setting without detracting from dialogue. I liked how the perspective of the long corridor at Buckingham Palace with the two small thrones at the end contrasted with the two seats in the meeting room the audiences are held in. This design played well with the ideas of formal and informal power. The costume changes on stage also surprisingly worked well in a discreet yet still obvious manner, as if to highlight that the monarch has a very staged look.
If there’s one criticism I would level at the play though, it is that the frequent device of having the Queen talk to her younger self doesn’t quite work. It seems a bit too contrived as a way of emphasising the trials and tribulations of becoming a queen.
Overall though, this play is a delight to watch and seeing the Dame on stage playing another venerable woman, Elizabeth Windsor is not something to be missed.
‘The Audience’ is running at the Gielgud Theatre until 15 June 2013.