Those of you who like a bit of Royal Fantasy should hurry up and get your tickets to this delicious bit of sweets. The Audience is fantasy indeed, much like Cinderella, but with a bit of grit added to it. The grit being a staple of the present Monarch. The fantasy lies not in the story, but in the text itself.
The story is of a woman, Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) who, for the first ten or so years of her life was “just” a princess. The afternoon we were there Sadie Sink played Young Elizabeth with grace and skill. When she was 10 her father became King, boosting her status n the food chain considerably. No longer just a princess, she was now Heir to the Throne. Unless of course her mother had a son, in which case she would have been bumped off the turnip wagon. Her mother did no such thing, however, so the throne transferred to a woman for the first time in many a year. The honor arrived on the early side. She was 25 when her father died and 26 when she was crowned – on television if you please.
Thus began Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with her Prime Ministers, and therein lies the trail that Peter Morgan follows for his tale. There have been 12 Prime Ministers. Three of them were not even born when Elizabeth became Queen. She has outlived more than a few. Churchill (Dakin Matthews), fighting for a dignified conclusion to his political career was her introduction to the practice of weekly audiences between Sovereign and Prime Minister. Cameron (Rufus Wright) may not be her last.
Peter Morgan takes great liberties with the passage of time here. There doesn’t seem to be a clear reason for this, but it does no harm and give the costume and wig designers (Bob Crowley and Ivana Primorac) plenty of opportunity for some splendid slight of hand. Wigs and dresses change in a twinkling.
John Major(Dylan Baker) begins the lengthy parade of PM’s. He is a shy man who never wanted to be Minister and only took the job at the prodding of Margaret Thatcher. So miserable is he with the state of the country – finances are a mess and moral is extremely low – that he bursts into tears at the thought of the past and his life as a child. This is the first inkling that we have lept the rails. The idea that a PM would weep in front of the Queen is defies credulity.
The ministers pile in. Churchill explains the ropes to a young Elizabeth – no eating or drinking, her job is to listen, not to question (a constitutional monarch has the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn) – and she does her best to hold her own dogmatic stead course. When she meets with her next Minister, Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) she informs him that she not only is the first one on the cc list, she reads everything that is sent to her. Thus she uncovers a collusion she was not meant to know – even though history suggests that Eden was the first PM to deliver Top Secret documents to the queen.
Morgan creates distinct characters in his PMs. Wilson, (Richard McCab) rough around the edges and loose with his opinions, may have been her favorite. He appears to have been honest with both his praise and his disagreements. Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey) was as bristly with the Queen as she was with anyone else. Tony Blair (Rufus Wright) delivered the Iraq rhetoric as it was spoon fed to him, and like Eden, was determined to rescue a country too long in bondage to a ruthless leader.
Morgan wants us to understand the various predicaments the Queen has faced. He is determined that we see her as a working woman, not a privileged icon who has outlived her usefulness. He is extremely sincere in his efforts. This may be why many of the scenes often feel contrived. The Queen deadpans. The Ministers get testy and answer back. The Queen serves drinks at Balmoral. Me? I don’t think so. And then there is the matter of the audience room itself, described as being duck egg blue – instead we are ushered into a large cavernous and dark room. One – not to make too fine a point of it – but the queen is famous for her outfits, and that includes matching shoes and purses all around. Here, Mirren is sentenced to the same black shoes (with one or two exceptions) and the same black purse. Hello?
Where this production does excel is in the person of Helen Mirren who manages to convey the essence of this Queen. We understand, we can literally feel that for her this is a Holy calling. This is a privilege, a life commitment connected to centuries of her ancestors. She has embraced it with her entire being. The Royal Family has a duty to care for their Commonwealth. They are not like other people. They do not wish to be. She is their leader and the country’s guardian. The monarchy is not a vocation from which on can retire – like the Pope. And considering the fact that her own mother lived to be 102, this Queen may be carrying her treasured torch for a long time to come.
By Peter Morgan; directed by Stephen Daldry
WITH: Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth II), Dylan Baker (John Major), Geoffrey Beevers (Equerry), Michael Elwyn (Anthony Eden), Judith Ivey (Margaret Thatcher), Dakin Matthews (Winston Churchill), Richard McCabe (Harold Wilson), Rod McLachlan (Gordon Brown), Rufus Wright (David Cameron/Tony Blair), Elizabeth Teeter (Young Elizabeth) and Sadie Sink (Young Elizabeth).
Designed by Bob Crowley; lighting by Rick Fisher; sound by Paul Arditti; composer, Paul Englishby; hair and makeup design by Ivana Primorac; production stage manager, Jill Cordle; animal trainer, William Berloni; general manager, Bespoke Theatricals; associate director, Justin Martin. Presented by Matthew Byam Shaw, Robert Fox, Andy Harries, Beverly Bartner, Scott M. Delman, Ed Mirvish Enterprises Ltd., Stephanie P. McClelland, MSG WLE, Jon B. Platt, Scott Rudin, Carole Shorenstein Hays, the Shubert Organization and Alice Tulchin; associate producers, Nick Salmon, Nia Janis, Marieke Spencer and Georgia Gatti. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, The Audience – theaudiencebroadway.com. Through June 28. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.