Helen Mirren was already an honored Dame of the British Empire when she won the Oscar for playing Elizabeth II in 2006’s film The Queen. After reprising the role on the stage in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, which debuted in London in 2013 and is currently playing at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, the Crown might owe her a timeshare in Buckingham Palace. Mirren’s sympathetic portrayal of the second longest-reigning monarch in British history has helped transform the actual Queen’s public persona and revitalized public goodwill toward the royal family (though William and Kate also deserve their fair share of the credit.)
The Audience is a character study of the sturdy woman who ascended to the throne at the age of 25 in 1952, framed by the tradition of her weekly courtesy chats with the British prime minister and an ongoing discussion with her childhood self (Sadie Sink). There have been 12 ministers—a “dirty dozen” that began with Winston Churchill and continues to this day with David Cameron. She insists on “friendliness not friendship” during these formal audiences—a line Morgan borrows from 1970s PM James Callaghan—though the most interesting scenes in the play, inevitably, are when she makes exceptions to her rule.
The play wisely jumps around chronologically, allowing Mirren to portray the queen at various stages of her reign. The flurry of fluid on-stage costume changes help magnify Mirren’s subtle but truly masterful transformations—from a young woman of youthful exuberance to the doddering white-haired mum. In truth, Elizabeth is a role better suited to the big screen, with close-ups and a director’s firm point-of-view to better amplify the reserved monarch’s many unspoken intentions.
In many ways, Mirren’s Elizabeth is the straight-man in her series of often-comical conversations with the “all too human complicated souls” who initially underestimate her and ultimately discover her to be a beguiling and comforting confessor. John Major (Dylan Baker) is a dim-witted wimp, Churchill (Dakin Matthews) is a growling pussycat, and Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan) is a bubbling cauldron of human impulses. Morgan may have tired of writing about Tony Blair after his trilogy starring Michael Sheen—The Deal, The Queen, The Special Relationship—with the Bush-era leader making only a quick cameo and mainly serving as a mere cautionary tale that “the same ideas come round again and again—wearing a different colored tie.”
Only Margaret Thatcher receives less flattering treatment—a garish conservative caricature played by Judith Ivey that’s more sassy Texan than icy Iron Lady. Their scene crackles—with neither friendliness nor friendship—but it’s the lone chapter that creaks under the weight of Morgan’s heavy-handed political haranguing.
If there’s a scene-stealer, it’s Richard McCabe, who’s already won the Olivier Award for playing Harold Wilson, the blue-collar liberal who served six-plus years as prime minister in the 1960s and ‘70s. McCabe’s Wilson lacks a filter or proper reverence for protocol, two characteristics that endear him to the bemused queen from the moment he first arrives with his own Polaroid to commemorate the occasion. He’s the one who sees her most clearly—who recognizes the 11-year-old behind the pomp—and that mutual recognition of kindred spirits makes their inevitable parting surprisingly heartbreaking.
The Audience is, by definition, extremely British, and those versed in the Suez Crisis, the African misadventures of Thatcher’s son, and the differences between a snap- and by-election have an advantage. But if you came to see royalty—acting royalty, that is—this is an Audience worth seeking. B+