Theatre Review: The Audience, Gielgud Theatre

The AudienceUnfortunately I haven’t seen that much in the way of theatre lately due to the fact we are madly saving our pennies. But when I saw the adverts for The Audience, starring Helen Mirren last year I knew I’d have to make an exception and break the bank. You see, I’m a sucker for British history and I am also a bit of a sucker for the Royal Family so naturally, I was intrigued by the subject matter of the play.

The Audience is based on a long-standing tradition whereby the Queen holds a weekly audience with the Prime Minister at Buckingham Palace. Although the Queen has no constitutional right to influence, contradict or set policy, the weekly audience is designed to keep her in the loop with what is going on and also is used as somewhat of a confessional or sounding board – brief chats where anything can be discussed and nothing is recorded or revealed to the wider public or even their families. Strictly confidential.

Of course, over the years, snippets have been leaked, or at least rumours were spread of what had been discussed. There has, however, always been the contextual references which have allowed for speculation around what may or may not have been discussed or what the working relationship has been between the Queen and the PM of the time, but nothing has ever been confirmed.

So when Peter Morgan decided to write a play which imagines snippets of these weekly conversations, the experiences the Queen has had over the years, and the dynamics between The Queen and the various PMs, I was interested to see what he’d make of them and how the relationships might be developed theatrically. Naturally a fair bit of artistic licence can be employed given no-one really knows what goes on behind those closed doors!

In her long reign, the Queen has held Audience with 12 different Prime Ministers and 8 of those are featured in The Audience. From Churchill all the way through to David Cameron, we get a broad spectrum of discussions around policies of the time, war, the economy, and social context.

Helen Mirren, no stranger to playing the role of the British Monarch, having played Elizabeth II in the 2006 movie, The Queen, and having also played as Elizabeth I in the TV miniseries of the same name in 2005, was brilliant in her role on stage. Despite a few slip ups in dialogue, which one has to be forgiven for in a stage production especially very soon after opening night, she had the mannerisms and characteristics down to a fine art and seamlessly transitioned from playing a young Queen at the beginning of her reign, to the Queen as she is now, some 60 years later.

The production was brilliant – we are transported back and forth in time rather than seeing the imagined meetings in chronological order. Some of Mirren’s costume changes were expertly and efficiently done on stage while at other times we are transported through time by the Equerry who provides little anecdotes about the furnishings within the Palace or Balmoral to provide clues as to what period of time we are about to witness.  This kept us on our toes and also added a bit of theatrical excitement, not knowing which decade would come next or indeed which PM would grace the stage next.

I will say, it does help to have some historical political knowledge or at the very least to know who the Prime Ministers were and what their more universally-known characteristics were. The historical context helps you to understand some of the jokes in the script and recognise the quirks of the characters on stage.

While topical and hilarious this play is also incredibly cheeky and in some ways politically incorrect, making fun of some of the policies, backgrounds and personality traits of both the PMs and the Queen herself. However, this play also examines some of the sadder aspects of the life and experiences of a British Monarch and their role in today’s society. The personality of the Queen is stitched together by her dialogue with the PMs as well as her retrospective conversations with her 11-year-old self and she is sometimes portrayed as lonely, craving attention, frustrated with the constitutional expectations and limitations and a displaying both a curiosity about ‘normal’ life and a reluctance to perform her role as the Queen. I only wish I knew which of the 3 girls listed in the cast played the young Elizabeth because she was absolutely brilliant.

Kudos should also go to all of the actors playing the PMs who captured their personalities brilliantly on stage but special mention should go to Haydn Gwynne for her sterling and hilarious performance as Maggie Thatcher, Richard McCabe for his role as Harold Wilson and Rufus Wright for his role as David Cameron.

Typically when you see movies, plays or TV shows about Kings and Queens of England they are produced long after said King or Queen has died so I’ve always wondered what the Queen herself or members of her family would think of the portrayal of her personality and private thoughts, which are not really all that well-known. Would she be offended? Would she laugh? Would she agree with the assumptions made about her and her relationships with these people?

All in all – I’m glad I splashed out and went along to see it as it was incredibly well written, well produced and brilliantly acted. The only bug bear I had when I came out was the sore neck I had from having to sit chest to knee the whole time because of the very tall man in front of me – but hey, nothing one can do about that is there?

Helen Mirren as the Queen

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