Helen Mirren Delivers Another Mesmerizing Performance as The Queen

Dame Helen Mirren is at it again – thankfully — reviving her Oscar-winning role as The Queen.  This time she plays QE2 on stage in Peter Morgan’s highly-anticipated play The Audience from London’s Gielgud Theatre, telecast in the US and throughout the world in a number of venues throughout the year as part of National Theatre Live.  Check your local listings.

During a span of some 60 years, Elizabeth II has met with each of her 12 Prime Ministers in an intimate, weekly audience at Buckingham Palace.  While the meetings are extremely private and off-limits to all but the two attendees — and apparently both parties have an unspoken agreement never to discuss what is said at these meetings – playwright Peter Morgan masterfully imagines a witty, engaging, and completely satisfying set of conversations between the Queen and 8 of her 12 PMs.

Sweeping a near-historical 60-plus year reign as Monarch of the British Empire (Queen Victoria has her beat by 2 years, at least for now); QE2’s Prime Ministers are presented in the play as a wide array of personalities.  From Winston Churchill to David Cameron, the PMs range in styles and personalities from an imposing and dominant Churchill (Edward Fox) to a wickedly nervous and fragile John Major (Paul Ritter); from a gender-threatened Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne) to a warm and personable Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), who is suggested by the playwright as the Queen’s favorite PM and the only PM shown in conversation outside the formality of Buckingham Palace (in Balmoral Castle in Scotland).

Mr. Morgan uses these private conversations as parable-like sounding boards of the social voices and vices of the British populace throughout the Queen’s reign.  At times intimate and personal — often verging on confessional — to times explosive and argumentative, the play dabbles in time travel showing the Queen from a young and rebellious school girl scout to the steady grandmother matron of the Windsor clan.   As The National Theatre’s website states:  “These private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan Age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.”

Throughout her reign, the Queen is shown as stoic, steady-at-the-helm and a quick study.  At times tender and very human — wishing for anonymity and camouflage-privacy and not wanting all heads to turn towards her upon every entrance — I could not help but see the comedy of this very-real monarch portraying the innocence and insecurity of a fictional princess in Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday.  Helen Mirren is spot on.  She nails, again, the serious yet at times comic turn of England’s reining monarch.  To this reviewer, Mirren was invisible.  I found myself totally amazed that the sitting monarch of the English empire would be playing herself at this intimate English stage.   That is a master actor at the top of her craft.  Astonishing.

The writing is equally Brilliant.  At first, I was hesitant with this play.  I am not familiar with the political system and players of the United Kingdom.  No matter.  As iconic archetypes, each PM was engaging and comically, yet seriously, portrayed.  Each one a brilliant counterpoint to the constant, as-the-world-turns steadiness of their Queen.  The non-chronological presentation of each of the PMs worked in perfect tandem with the effective soliloquies of a rebellious and innocent Princess (wishing for a boy brother upon the ascension of her father to the throne upon Edward VIII’s abdication) in conversation with her young, middle-aged, and then octogenarian Queen/Self.  Helen Mirren was brilliant through it all, not only changing in her dresses and hair styles, but also modulating her speech’s timber and cadence with each period of the Queen’s reign.

Dove-tailing with the fine acting and refined writing, the overall production was breathtaking, literaly.  The on-stage costume changes throughout the play was a brilliant work of staging, as were the footmen’s choreographed entrances with the minimal-yet-formal furnishings of the set.  The costumes were straight out of the closets of Buckingham Palace, complete with the Queen’s famous formal coronation portrait gown and accouterments by Cecil Beaton.  The only aspect of the production I found issue with was the set design.   The playwright expressly outlined an intimate reception room complete with “two Canalettos and two Gainsboroughs.”  Where were they?   Maybe as a visual reminder of the outside spaces of the intimate meeting room, the set designer instead used columns to focus the audience’s eye into a vanishing point which looked to be some sort of formal receiving room complete with gold-gilt thrones with a red-velvet canopy.  However, I somehow found this distracting and a bit Hollywood.  Likely my own personal idiosyncrasy.   Overall, The Audience is sure to delight and provoke discussion.  It was a most delightful evening at the theatre.  Outstanding.

The Audience is directed by Academy Award-nominated director Stephen Daldry [Billy Elliot (2000), The Hours (2002),The Reader (2008) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)].  Check the website of National Theatre Live for details about US showings [http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk].  By Queen’s orders, don’t miss it.

Grade: A+


For more information: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout3-the-audience

Review by Armin Callo