Theater Review: Helen Mirren Holds The Audience

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Photo: Joan Marcus

Seldom do costumes provide the bulk of a play’s drama, but in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, the greatest surprises and transformations are all in the clothes. As the curtain rises we find Mirren styled as Elizabeth circa 1995, in a very red dress and gray-frosted wig, talking with Prime Minister John Major during their regular Tuesday-evening meeting at Buckingham Palace. The politics of the discussion are not very exciting — Major is mostly whining about his historically low popularity — but when we soon flash back to Elizabeth’s first such meeting, with Winston Churchill in 1952, the fireworks, such as they are, begin. While the director Stephen Daldry distracts your eye with doings stage right, Mirren, stage left, sheds 44 years in just a few seconds, with a new wig, a new voice, and, seemingly out of nowhere, handsome mourning clothes. (It’s 1952, and King George VI has just died; Elizabeth, his daughter, has acceded to the throne but not yet been crowned.) Peppery Churchill is naturally a more interesting figure than watery John Major, but even so, the real drama happens when his segment is over, as Mirren suddenly turns 38, meeting Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a knee-length brown print number that seems to acknowledge the 1960s while at the same time holding its nose. And so it goes for the rest of the evening, as the decades jump about and the queen’s hips go from broad to svelte and back again.

Which is all to say that Daldry and his superb designers (Bob Crowley did the costumes and sets; Ivana Primorac the wigs and makeup) have worked more magic than has the playwright, if not as much as Mirren herself. In fact, it’s difficult to justify calling The Audience a play at all: It is more like a pageant, not merely in the parade-of-costumes sense but in the theatrical sense. It’s constructed as a cavalcade of formal scenes, each a variation on the theme of state versus crown, as expressed in the weekly discussions that Elizabeth, like her forebears, has with the prime ministers who nominally serve under her but in reality hold all the cards. The Audience depicts 9 of her 12, from Churchill through David Cameron, and although the issues change, and the personalities change, and Elizabeth’s outfits and posture and hair color change, it is mostly a story of limitations, of compulsory adherence to protocol, and thus completely undramatic. 

This was a given of the format Morgan chose. He had already written about Elizabeth at a single moment of explicit drama — the Diana crisis — in his screenplay for The Queen, also starring Mirren. In The Audience, he clearly wanted to do something different: to examine the meaning of the monarchy over time, and to provide Mirren with an even bigger tour de force. He is more successful with the latter than the former. Mirren is, no doubt, a great stage creature, the kind of actor in whom immense craft, intelligence, and sex appeal merge seamlessly to project a sense of character there’s no point questioning. Her Elizabeth is as clear and particular as her Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect was, and she obviously relishes the additional physical challenges of portraying discontinuously a woman over the course of 65 years. She knows just what to do with the deliciously periphrastic dialogue Morgan has given her to represent what happens to natural curiosity when it is forced to find its way around innumerable barriers to expression. Indeed, Morgan may tip his hand too much by giving Elizabeth the play’s first joke, at Major’s expense:

MAJOR: I only ever wanted to be ordinary. 
ELIZABETH: And in which way do you consider you’ve failed in that ambition? 

Is the queen really so witty? And is she really, as depicted later — when she speaks up for the poor, or for South African sanctions, or against the outright misrepresentations of Anthony Eden regarding Suez, and Tony Blair regarding Iraq — such a bleeding-heart liberal? (The play even posits, on little evidence, that the favorite of her PMs was that painfully un-posh Labourite Harold Wilson.) It’s nice to think so, but Morgan has admitted that he has no way of knowing: “I’m only guessing,” he’s said.

You might make the argument that he’s writing for the theater, not history books, and different rules apply. Yet the play wants to have it both ways. It tries to borrow against our awe at the grandeur of the Buckingham and Balmoral settings, and at the ermines of Elizabeth’s investiture, to set up the surprise of her being, in private, “just folks.” (At Balmoral, she has a Woolworth’s space heater and a side table stacked with board games including Chutes and Ladders.) At the same time it counts on our interest in the “real” monarch to get us into the seats and to sustain a story that insists on its right (which is really just a necessity) to invent the character artistically. It is no accident that Morgan thus saves Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey, looking and sounding a bit off) for the climax of Act 2. The Iron Lady, hopping mad and brimming with condescension, brazenly berates Elizabeth over an apparent press leak from the palace in which sources “unprecedentedly close” to the queen called Thatcher “uncaring, confrontational, and socially divisive.” Finally, a fight with substance; indeed, it’s a scene straight out of Schiller’s Mary Stuart, except that Elizabeth II loses whereas Elizabeth I won.  

Whether that confrontation really happened we will probably never know. (The one in the Schiller did not.) And I suppose if the play were generally more convincing we probably wouldn’t care. But even aside from its authenticity issues, The Audience relies on too many clichés of biodrama to hold itself together. There’s unnecessary direct narration, from the queen’s Equerry-in-Waiting, as if leading the audience on a group tour (“A large, duck-egg blue room. High ceilings, a fireplace, a Chippendale bureau”); groan-worthy cue-the-memory-music dialogue (“I recall a conversation I had with him, on the eve of that terrible misadventure”); and even, unforgivably, the periodic appearance of Young Elizabeth, a ghost who has prescient things to say with the reverb turned way up.

So it’s really the Helen Mirren show, with her chorus line of prime ministers in black and gray setting off her brilliance. (They are mostly excellent, especially Dakin Matthews as Churchill and Richard McCabe as Wilson.) I don’t mean to minimize the pleasure of that; it’s dazzling fun. But for Mirren no less than the rest of the cast the play appears to be little more than a series of meaty and not especially difficult exercises; they invest a great deal of expertise and passion into the best possible rendering of the simplest possible tunes. To what end? For all the apparent centrality of the Tuesday meetings in the queen’s life — they are like the weekly call that a Jewish mother demands from her son — they were of very little consequence in the lives of the PMs, or, one suspects, of the country. And thus, for all the ermine, of little consequence to us. 

The Audience is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through June 28.