It's not often the queen travels the short distance from Buckingham Palace to London's West End to go to the theatre. One show she did see was Stephen Daldry's musical Billy Elliot in 2006. Appropriately, Daldry is directing The Audience, the new play by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon), at the Gielgud Theatre in which Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II over a 60-year period.
Mirren played the same regal role half a decade ago in The Queen (also scripted by Morgan), which depicted the tense relationship between the monarchy and Tony Blair following Princess Diana's death. She wound up winning an Oscar for Best Actress. But second time around as the U.K. sovereign, Mirren is even better on stage in The Audience than she was in The Queen.
The construct of the play is simple. Each Wednesday that the queen and the prime minister are both in London, they hold a weekly meeting. The discussions are confidential and nobody else is present.
Morgan has created electrifying drama out of the conversations he has imagined between Her Majesty and eight occupants of 10 Downing Street. What risked being a rambling series of sketches is instead a highly entertaining work of art that holds a mirror up to the enduring resolve of the monarchy and the perennial dysfunction of the British political classes. Mirren portrays the queen as a rock in turbulent waters alighting with sinking ships (John Major played by Paul Ritter), venerable anchors (Winston Churchill played by Edward Fox) and stubborn vessels (Harold Wilson played by Richard McCabe).
Never does Mirren lapse into maniacal monarchical devotion or unfair caricature. Throughout the queen is depicted as Britain's psychiatrist, as much as its ruler, patiently listening to the tribulations of life at the top of the political tree. Elizabeth's demeanor and role in the room changes depending on the personality of the premier she is confronted with, just as the fortunes of the monarchy fluctuates with the times (in the 1960s the royals were on the cusp of change while their unpopularity escalated in the 1990s).
With Margaret Thatcher, for instance, (a magisterial Haydn Gwynne) the queen meekly surrenders as Britain's trailblazing first female prime minister takes her to task over a newspaper report quoting senior royal sources expressing the queen's displeasure with her style of government. When it's the turn of the ill-fated Anthony Eden to take the stage, Queen Elizabeth II grills him over the legality of the Suez War of 1956 that epitomized Britain's post-war decline.
In seamlessly weaving isolated incidents from each prime minister's tenureship, Morgan delivers an absorbing and amusing masterclass exploring the power dynamics of modern British political history, well served by Daldry's elegant direction. Mirren delivers a masterclass in how to give a sensitive and captivating star turn. The combination is irresistible.
The Audience has an impressive box office advance of over $6 million and would soar on Broadway (though Morgan might wish to re-visit the opening scene which feels as though beleaguered John Major -- the PM between Thatcher and Tony Blair -- is reading out his Wikipedia entry).
The Audience would also work well as a movie (U.S. audiences can see the play on the big screen as part of NT Live in June). In addition to drawing London's political establishment -- Sir David Frost conversed with leading Labour Party politico David Miliband during the interval -- the opening night of the play attracted the cream of U.K. cinema including Gemma Arterton, directors Tom Hooper and Paul Greengrass and Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan of British production powerhouse Working Title.
For now, anyone in the vicinity of the Gielgud Theatre should do what they can to be among The Audience. It's a more affecting and entertaining work than The Queen. In fact I would go further. A ticket to see Mirren playing the queen might well be a more rewarding experience than securing an audience with her real-life counterpart.
"The Audience" runs at Gielgud Theatre until June 15.