[Review] - The Audience


As I mentioned in my review of Hitchcock, there are essentially two ways of portraying a historical figure. One is to go with a full impression, mimic the sounds, the physicality and attempt to become the person. The other is to forget all of that, play the role honestly and with conviction, and let that fulfil the character. Helen Mirren is the latter sort of actor, by her own admission, being "rubbish at voices." And that is, beyond a doubt, why she is so successful in her roles, especially those based on real persons, and especially the role of Queen Elizabeth II, whom she plays in the stage production The Audience (in an Olivier award winning performance) for a second time, having won an Oscar for the role in The Queen.

That she doesn't try to become these figures, and the Queen in particular, but rather simply performs the roles with the appropriate emotion and gravitas, without getting bungled up in trying to maintain a transformation as well, means all her strength goes into the moment, and creates a far greater performance then most can deliver.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers which are a matter of historical record.


The Audience, capital A there, is the weekly meeting held between the British Prime Minister and the ruling Monarch of the United Kingdom. It is a matter of tradition, much like the US custom of the State of the Union, which is not prescribed or demanded on any document, but persists to this day. During this brief meeting, the elected leader of the government will brief the royal on the events of the week, and seek or give advice as necessary. As the introduction to the performance states (with considerable flamboyance by Geoffery Beevers), the monarchy will always support the government in their decisions, as is required of them by law. For the past 61 years, it has been part of the Queen's duties, and as the second longest reigning monarch, she has held an Audience with 12 Prime Ministers, more then any royal before her, more even then Victoria.

It is this private and secretive meeting that the play is structured around, and the depth of history it suggests. The play refers to the Queen as the Unbroken Line which passes through the second half of the twentieth century, and has made a damned good dent in the twenty first. What is discussed in these meetings is unknown, as it is kept between the Queen and her First Minister, who regard the honour as just that. However, as writer Peter Morgan describes, what happened in the lives of the Ministers, the Queen, and the country are public record, and assumptions about the content of discussions can be surmised. The play is more about the personalities that have passed through the office of the Prime Minister, and how they interact with the Queen. Morgan says, it becomes a question of "truth versus authenticity." The play, in his mind, is about the truth of the characters, not the reality of the words.

Of the twelve PMs, seven are given focus: Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Jim Callaghan puts in a brief appearance, and all twelve are briefly seen by plays end. A distinct effort to avoid Tony Blair was made, in part because his Audiences with the Queen were already examined in the film, The Queen, and it was those scenes that inspired Morgan to write this play. The play is not chronological, and while at first is presented as something of a diary of events, eventually reveals itself to be the Queen's own shifting memory, with the faintest of connective threads existing between time periods. In fact, despite the play occurring from the Queen's perspective, it is the PMs who are the focus. Each of the segments hinges around an item is historical note that was impacting the country at the time, the PM's reactions to it, and the Queen's consistent and steadfast presence. The only time this isn't adhered to is the single interaction with Churchill, whose close relationship with Elizabeth's father meant he knew more about procedure and traditional during their first Audience then she did.

Mirren carries the weight of the production on her back, and does it with seemingly little effort. Not only is she in nearly every scene of the play, but it requires her to make lightning fast costume and wig changes, as she portrays the Queen from ages 25 up to her present 87. And that she accomplishes this illusion with only four different wigs and a variety of postures (and a slight peak in her voice during the younger years), and pulls it off completely speaks volumes. This is not to degrade the performances put in by the actors playing the PMs, many of whom take to the first sort of historical portrayal (Robert Hardy's Churchill especially). Paul Ritter's John Major and Richard McCabe's Harold Wilson were the particular standouts of the PM cast.

The PM which receives the most attention is, perhaps unexpectedly Wilson, whom the play posits was one of the Queen's favourites. In fact, despite her insistence that the relationship between herself and the PM is "friendly, not friendship," the interactions between her and Wilson suggest something deeper then just a professional understanding. The play doesn't burn the point of the Queen's position being an isolating one as hard as The Queen did (though the point is brought up often), the seemingly counter intuitive bonding that occurs between Wilson and Elizabeth certainly highlight her ability to connect with others as a person rather then being kept apart by a title. By the same respect, her inability to develop a relationship with the likes of Thatcher or Eden speak just as much to her humanity, and her inability to ignore the human element in the machinations of the government.

The Thatcher scene is the longest of the play, occurring late in the second act, and was being performed before and after the former PM's death. It is a powerful scene, filled with confrontation, and a dichotomous exploration of two women, which it is made clear were the same age, who filled very powerful roles and were focused on very different things, both with an eye towards the same result: a strong and prosperous England. A late addition to the play, a congratulation of Cameron's eulogy at the funeral, was added in the Cameron scene (which plays very much like an epilogue to the play despite not being the last scene) and gives the play a very present and up to date feel. Rumours of a Broadway production of the play suggest new scenes being added, including the inclusion of Blair. I might suggest the Cameron scene become one of fluidity, should the play ever be put on again years from now, to keep the play grounded in the modern day, whatever day that proves to be.

The play shares less in common with The Queen, Mirran aside, and more in common with Morgan's Frost/Nixon, in that it is two hours of one-on-one formal conversation, and like Frost/Nixon, I suspect would not make the transition to film well. There is no real story here, it's a character study, one that is well structured and deeply successful, but unless Elizabeth's remembrances were structured around a specific event, the anthology-like nature of the piece would be alienating to most film audiences. Theatre is a different beast altogether.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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