Review by Peter Brown
2 March 2013
Every week – when the relevant parties are in London – Queen Elizabeth II meets with her current Prime Minister for a cosy chat about … well, we don’t actually know what they talk about because no minutes are published, or even kept. And so far as I am aware none of the 12 Prime Ministers who have served during the Queen’s 61 year reign has given anything more than a vague hint of what their discussions have covered. So, how do you make a play out of meetings like that?
Peter Morgan’s answer to that tricky question is to blend fact and fiction. He draws on what is commonly known about the personalities of various Prime Ministers and the issues they faced during their periods in office, then mixes-in the character of a shrewd, hard-working and intelligent monarch, and finally tops it all off with completely fictional but rather witty dialogue. The recipe proves immensely successful so that the final theatrical dish is humorously entertaining, well-observed, and has enough in the way of authenticity to be (just about) believable.
In the lead, as Queen Elizabeth II, is Helen Mirren who has already had a fairly decent rehearsal for the part, as she won an oscar in 2006 for her portrayal of the same person in the film ‘The Queen’. With the kind of experience she has acquired, perhaps she may be missing a few performances in the near future in order to stand in for HMQ while she recovers from her current illness.
An equerry, well-played by Geoffrey Beevers, introduces us to the basic concept of the weekly meeting and is in evidence serving tea and the like throughout the proceedings. A parade of 8 Prime Ministers proceed into the audience room for their private sessions with the monarch. The meetings range over the entire period of the Queen’s reign, but not in chronological order. And two of the PMs – Harold Wilson and John Major – make more than one appearance. This timeline means that Ms Mirren has to get younger as well as older as the play progresses. That requires some fairly quick costume changes, some of which take place rather magically on-stage. Ms Mirren makes the transitions seem effortless, and is hugely convincing and authoritative both as the younger monarch and her older counterpart.
Edward Fox has stepped into Robert Hardy’s shoes at the last minute to take on the role of Winston Churchill – the first Prime Minister during the Queen’s reign. Richard McCabe turns in a very fine, astutely-observed performance as the mac-wearing Harold Wilson who reveals that his famous pipe was for public performances only and that he actually preferred cigars in private. Wilson was, apparently, the Queen’s favourite and we see him at Balmoral as well in the audience room in London. Haydn Gwynne is also in exceptional form as a Margaret Thatcher enraged by leaks from the palace, and Paul Ritter’s ‘ordinary’ John Major is advised by the Queen to resign. We also meet Elizabeth as a young girl wandering around Buckingham Palace and in conversation with her older self. On the night I caught the show, the young Elizabeth was admirably played by a confident Nell Williams.
Whether the elected Prime Minister should have a weekly chat with the Queen is disputable in terms of the governance of the country. However much one might admire the Queen’s commitment to her role, her formidable work ethic or the multitude of excellent personal qualities she possesses, she is an unelected Head of State who has, and should not have any political power not even if exercised by means of unobserved and unrecorded private meetings with the Prime Minister. But that really is not the issue here because Peter Morgan’s play is more concerned with the personalities involved rather than questioning the political validity of these audiences. Whatever one’s view of the role or the power of the monarch, it is hard not to be intrigued by what might go on behind these particularly expensive closed doors. And ‘The Audience’ certainly does not disappoint.