IN “THE AUDIENCE”, at the Gielgud Theater in Piccadilly, Helen Mirren reprises the role she (and writer Peter Morgan) created in her majestic portrayal in “The Queen”.
This entertaining, hysterically funny play, offers a window into the twenty minute weekly meetings Her Majesty has with her Prime Ministers. These meetings are not recorded, and she ain’t talking. So this is Daltry’s (deftly staged) imaginative, fictional account of what might well have taken place in her meetings with a smattering of the twelve Prime Ministers who have – so far – served under her, from an imperious, lecturing Churchill to a doltish, pompous Cameron.
It’s a play about human character: Daltry brilliantly offers us the quickest of sketches into the prime ministers he introduces… all as foils for his creation of a beautifully rounded sense of his fictional Queen.
Mirren gives us a master class of acting, combining flawless comic timing with an evocation of the deeply human, lonely, dignified, empathetic person behind the crown. We see the two persons she needs to be – both the icon (and there’s a marvelous scene in which Cecil Beaton is shooting the Royal portrait that even now graces all her stamps and coin) and the person within.
The play makes it clear that as a constitutional monarch, she has no de jure role over British governance and must support whatever hair-brained schemes her first ministers have devised, whether she agrees to them or no. But, though she may be on the stamp, she’s no rubber stamp. We see a person who’s deeply well read, right-mindedly opinionated (Harold Wilson – her favourite minister according to the play – praises her for being a Labourite at heart) and unbowed by the forcefulness of personalities such as Churchill (Edward Fox as a hectoring, ageing lion) and Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne as a racist, heartless, driven Thatcher).
These weekly sessions are seen as occasions for therapy (she hands a timid, overwhelmed, weeping John Major – Paul Ritter – her handkerchief to cry in), sparring (with Thatcher), and, with Cameron, for dozing (she nods off as he prattles on about high finance). There are also moments of relaxed sharing and camaraderie (Wilson appears on several occasions, initially as a defensive working class man, testy in the presence of the Royal Personage, and subsequently as a person with whom the Queen can actually have a real conversation and, almost, meeting of minds).
Blair never makes a –physical- appearance, but hovers in the wings somewhere, referred to several times – derisively – by Gordon Brown and – respectfully – by Cameron. And that’s Blair chameleon, mercurial personality for you – attacked by his party, admired by his opponents
What these meetings are not however, much to her frustration, are meetings of consultation. We see her try to nudge things in her direction. But there’s little more she can do than that.
And this is the – Shakespearean – core of the play: the divide between the call of duty (sit down, shut up and offer support) and the call of humanity (try to influence decisions that do the right thing). But whereas Price Hal, the boisterous human, morphs into Henry V, the dehumanized icon and protector of the realm, QEII, in a modern age, knows that she must balance them both.
She must balance her desire to be a good wife (she tries – in vain – to take Philip’s name) with the duty to be a good queen; balance –reluctantly – the acceptance of the racist demands of a Thatcher with her allegiance to the non-white world of the Commonwealth; balance her inhuman impartiality and discretion with her all too human partiality (expressed by a request to Wilson that he invite her for dinner); balance the artificiality of living in a palace with her identification with her subjects, from the loftiest to the lowest
It’s a balance that we see in every gesture of Mirren’s masterpiece performace.