When it comes to ranking a play from one to five stars, the levels one to four are difficult for me to judge. However, when a show is a five, it is a five – no question. Seven years after directing Helen Mirren in the multiple award winning film The Queen, Peter Morgan returns to his lucky leading lady (it is up to you whether that is Mirren or Elizabeth II) with The Audience, directed by Stephen Daldry. The play offers us a peak into the weekly 20-minute meeting to which the Queen invites her Prime Minister. Throughout her reign, and the length of the drama, we become witnesses of her anticipation or dread at meeting her PMs – one woman and eleven men – and her strong feeling of duty towards her inescapable role.
Tony Blair, who became somewhat of an adviser to HRM during the mournful times of Diana’s passing in The Queen, is mentioned within the first minute of The Audience due to his insistence that the private meetings be hosted on Wednesdays instead of Tuesdays. However, he never appears in the play as a character. Perhaps this was Morgan’s acknowledgement that we may have seen him “enough” in the film and that the focus should be turned towards the Queen’s intriguing relationships with other PMs.
I must point out the grace and refinement of The Audience’s costume design. As a matter of fact, I did start counting the number of the perfectly choreographed costume and wig changes Mirren had to undergo, but lost track. From the exquisite white dress and jewels she wore for her official portrait to the 70’s polka dotted but discrete frock and the contemporary pastel attires we all recognise today, the costume designer’s choices truly reflected HRM’s character and mood, whether strict or melancholy. The accessory that remained unchanged was her black leather purse, which she carried around throughout the years and scenes.
Thanks to a young actress who portrays Elizabeth as a child, we discover that her strong character formed in her early years. Later, while Churchill wishes to traditionally hold the Audience standing, she changes the game by compelling him to sit. While Wilson whines about the Scottish weather in August (the Queen invites her PM for a week-end at Balmoral Castle every year), she insists “it is just a spot of summer rain”. Nevermind Cameron asking her about Kate’s child’s gender! Nevertheless, her nature and art of conversation create openness towards her interlocutor and never discourage nor intimidate. Indeed, despite her insistence to Cameron that the Audiences are a scene of “friendliness, not friendship”, one cannot help but noticing secret close ties to some of her PMs.
Can one imagine a more perfect and inventive actress to play the Queen than Helen Mirren? The Gielgud is putting on this play for a limited run, and I wonder whether it will ever be staged again after that. What it takes is an actress who possesses power yet enough humanity to welcome in the public as well as the trust of her fellow actors. One must also praise each single actor during this production, their accent and delivery work.
I believe the challenge here was to create a play that was first and foremost about the Queen, despite the politics included in the dialogues – not to make it too political. I have lived in this country under Brown and Cameron, and can certainly imagine my fellow audience members remembering much older PMs that governed the United Kingdom. One of my favourite moments was shortly before Thatcher entered and how the brilliant writing made the audience laugh with anticipation when the Prime Minister (“she!”) was announced. Whether a PM was liked in her/his time or not, seeing them again in a distanced and semi-fictitious setting is simply exciting.