Helen Mirren Reigns In Peter Morgan’s The Audience – Theater Review
Helen Mirren is in residence at the Gerald Schoenfeld, and an audience with her in her new play can only be described as the dog’s bollocks. Well, there are other effusive descriptions of this rare treat, but the opportunity to see a great actor at work on stage – Redgrave as Mary Tyrone, Pacino as Antonio, Streep as Canteen Anna, Shaw as Media – is, well, rare. Ms. Mirren, whose breathtaking portrayal of the inveterate Queen Elizabeth II, recognized by all but known by few, stands firmly and comfortably (here in sensible shoes), among the great actors whose Broadway appearance should not be missed. If you read no further, just hop on line and buy your ticket now.
Watching Ms. Mirren work is utter comfort. Her Jane Tennison in the television series Prime Suspect is deliciously, wonderfully complex, brilliant realized, and gently revealed. Every moment is ripe for surprise, but surprise that originates from life – not gimmick. Great writing, yes – but flat without a great actor. And in Ms. Mirren, we have a great actor.
Such is the experience of watching The Audience, but while this great theatrical satisfaction draws deeply on the talents of Ms. Mirren, it is by no small measure also the result of particularly spectacular work from both Bob Crowley (An American in Paris, Skylight, Aladdin, The Glass Menagerie) and Ivana Primorac (Sweeney Todd, Cold Mountain, The Hours, Atonement) whose costume, hair, and make-up designs hit the mark throughout. We see, or should I say recognize, the Queen at her coronation, in mourning attire at the death of her father, in her famous Cecil Beaton 1956 photograph (on postage stamps across the Empire), in dresses in the 70s, suits of the 80s, age appropriate after the new millennium. Each of these looks, completely familiar, are made onstage, giving Peter Morgan’s play a lovely fluidity and grounding his audience comfortably in the six decades of Her Majesty’s reign.
Many of us will have first seen Ms. Mirren’s Elizabeth II in Mr. Morgan’s The Queen, a smallish, beautiful film that very cleverly hangs a delicate story about personal breakthrough and development onto a signature tragedy to which most of the film’s audience, to varying degrees perhaps, has an emotional attachment. (I was painting the living room of a new apartment a milky yellow when I heard the news that Diana had died.) The person having the personal breakthrough is Mr. Morgan’s Queen of England, as she slowly but astutely recognizes her need to move The Firm in a new direction. Mr. Morgan’s setup is brilliant, and he needed only a worthy cast (he got a fantastic one) for a great commercial and artistic success.
So it is confounding that Mr. Morgan has written the play that he has written. Audiences (weekly meetings between the Queen and her Prime Ministers) nicely bookend Mr. Morgan’s beautiful movie, punctuating the turmoil and resolution that is the stuff of the movie.
In The Audience however, these audiences become the stuff. And we get twelve of them. If this is going to work, you’d better have twelve pretty fascinating British Prime Minsters. Spoiler alert – Britain has had maybe two or three – tops. (Note to playwrights – a work in which a scene is repeated twelve times with twelve different characters is hard to pull off – but don’t fret, Nick Payne fell into a similar trap earlier in the season. Learn from others mistakes).
Queen Elizabeth II has had a pretty fascinating life, and there is more than enough material from her eighty plus years to support a series of plays. The abdication of her uncle rocked British politics and seriously jeopardized the monarchy. The Queen’s father died young, having successfully lead the UK through WWII, despite personal challenges (The King’s Speech) and placing her on the thrown, a female (it had been a few years) at a young age. There followed failed marriages, scandals, and a bid by family member to usurp the love of the British.
The material Morgan chooses for The Audience is a gentle glimpse at the predicament facing Elizabeth II during her life on the throne – life as an inquisitive, intelligent, political, and astute woman who is the face of Great Britain but not the voice. Fair enough, and a worthy, if sleepy topic. We see Elizabeth offer the same advice to Tony Blair as he invades Iraq that she offered Anthony Eden in 1956 as he master-mined an offensive with France and Israel against Egypt during the Suez Crisis: “Can’t you delay?” the Queen asks, “…go back to the United Nations? Take time?” “Is it legal?” she asks both. Neither listen, and each suggests that their actions will be met in the streets by the open arms of a cheering, emancipated population, and that stable democracies sympathetic to Western interests will result. The Queen and her (ticket-paying) audience know that her Prime Ministers have lost the plot. It’s not all fun and games being Queen, and conversations between Elizabeth and her adolescent-self sweetly punctuate the difficult personal journey she has taken from child to figurehead.
In a parade of PMs, Morgan focuses on a particularly warm relationship between the Queen and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in office between 1964 and 1970, and from 1974 to 1976. Nothing much happened during this time, but Mr. Morgan rightly finds compelling interest in the genuine friendship between a woman of privilege and Labor Party stalwart.
Then there’s Thatcher. The Queen’s relationship with her eighth Prime Minister was famously cool, and Mr. Morgan offers, in this audience, an interesting view of their complex dance. Judith Ivey (The Heiress, Follies, The Devil’s Advocate, Designing Women) sadly and broadly misses the mark on both Mr. Morgan’s textual nuances, and the depth of Thatcher. Now, to be fair to Ms. Ivey, she’s sharing the stage with Mirren, and she’s playing a woman recently and memorably imagined by Meryl Streep. Bar is high. But Thatcher was a complex character – all great politicians are. And what every great politician knows how to do is to work a relationship and to work a room. Ivey, whose Thatcher careens between a mediocre Thatcher and Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias, plays all bulldozer and leaves any nuance that Morgan provides her offstage.
But there’s Mirren and the remainder of this strong cast, particularly Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson and Sadie Sink/Elizabeth Teeter who share the role of a young Elizabeth. And a play that looks gently at the long royal road from childhood to monarch, and the world politics she encounters along the way. In the end, you’ll think you’ve stuck your bum in butter.
The Audience, by Peter Morgan at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in a limited run. Directed by Stephen Daldry; scenic and costume design, Bob Crowley; lighting design, Rick Fisher; sound design, Paul Arditti; original music, Paul Englishby; hair and make-up, Ivana Primorac.
With Helen Mirren, Dylan Baker, Geoffrey Beevers, Michael Elwyn, Judith Ivey, Dakin Matthews, Richard McCabe, Rod McLachlan, Rufus Wright, Anthony Cochrane, Graydon Long, Jason Loughlin, Michael Rudko, Henny Russell, Tracy Sallows, Sadie Sink, Elizabeth Teeter, and Tony Ward.
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