Theatre review - The AudiencePosted on: 25 March 2013 by Agatha Cheng
Laurence Green reviews Peter Morgan's latest play The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre.
It is an odd paradox that one of the world’s most public and best loved figures, namely Queen Elizabeth II is also one of the least known. Now Peter Morgan who penned the 2006 film The Queen returns to the royal theme with his latest work The Audience (Gielgud Theatre), which imagines the weekly meetings held by the sovereign with eight of her 12 Prime Ministers over her long reign. And who better to play Her Majesty but Helen Mirren of course.
The play, which dispenses with a chronological plot, begins with a lachrymose John Major, anxious about the way his government s tearing itself apart, then moves back to Churchill, than forward to Wilson and so on. Each Prime Minister uses these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional, sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive. We also see the monarch conversing with her 11-year-old self, making us acutely aware of the fact that from a very early age the young Elizabeth knew what her demanding destiny would be.
Although no minutes are taken and no officials are present, Morgan makes the encounters depicted in the play seem persuasive, with the Queen emerging as witty, knowledgeable, kind and psychologically astute. James Callaghan, who only makes a brief appearance here, once said that visiting the Queen was like a weekly session with a psychiatrist. There are stunning political moments such as the Queen’s appalled questions to Anthony Eden about the legality of the Suez invasion as well as genuinely moving ones, such as when Harold Wilson confides that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Director Stephen Daldry elicits a truly superb, marvellously lifelike performance from Helen Mirren, already a veteran at playing the monarch on screen in the much praised movie The Queen, who now brings her charismatic presence to the stage and, through the use of different costumes and wigs, convincingly suggests different periods of her reign. She manages to convey the compassion, grace, affection and humour of the sovereign, as well as capturing the Queen’s moments of vulnerability, not least during the break up of the Prince of Wales marriage to Diana and her sudden anger on learning of plans to scrap her beloved Royal Yacht Britannia.
Praise must also be given to Richard McCabe as a most convincing Harold Wilson, initially chippy but soon smitten by the sovereign and deeply touching in his final decline. Equally impressive is Paul Ritter as a blundering John Major, Haydn Gwynne as steely Margaret Thatcher, Michael Elwyn as a forthright Anthony Eden and Edward Fox replacing Robert Hardy who cracked his ribs in a fall, as a sicklu Churchill. I found the young actress (Nell Williams, Bebe Cave and Maya Gerber all share the role) playing the Queen’s Childhood alter ego most endearing.
Bob Crowley’s palatial set elegantly conjures up both Buckingham Palace and Balmoral which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the play.
In short then this is a fascinating and absorbing production that offers a rare opportunity to sneak down the corridors of power and peek through the keyhole at these significant encounters.
Runs to June 15
Box office: 0844 482 5130
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