BWW Reviews: Mirren in Full Command in THE AUDIENCE
It might surprise some of us Yanks to find out that the weekly meetings held every Tuesday evening between Britain's Prime Minister and Queen Elizabeth II are a courtesy the PM extends to the queen, and not vica versa. But, as they say in The Producers, Peter Morgan's smart and entertaining The Audience is drenched with historical goodies.
There's no need to brush up your Windsors to enjoy this thoroughly engaging character study. Despite talk of wars and economics and class structure, the gist of the evening is how a woman with one of the world's most glamourous, yet essentially powerless, political positions makes her presence known, for the good of her country, through the long succession of men (and one woman) who are actually running her nation's government.
Geoffrey Beevers is deliciously dry as the equerry who periodically appears to explain the history and protocol of these private audiences. The intention is to give Her Majesty a brief summation of the week's noteworthy events in domestic and foreign affairs without any debating of policy. As her first prime minister, Winston Churchill (wonderfully crusty and overbearing Dakin Matthews), explains it, "the Sovereign listens, makes notes, maybe on the rare occasion asks a question and unconditionally supports."
Morgan offers us encounters with eight of Elizabeth II's twelve (thus far) prime ministers, along with scenes where the Sovereign recalls her childhood trepidation to ascending to the throne. (Sadie Sink and Elizabeth Teeter alternate playing her as an adolescent.) As these meetings are completely private and undocumented, the content and dialogue is always the playwright's finely crafted fiction.
Helen Mirren was only required to play Elizabeth II in her early 70s in The Queen, for which Morgan wrote the screenplay, but here, directed by Stephen Daldry, she accomplishes a striking display of her craft by effectively and completely playing her from a young woman of 25, still awaiting her coronation after her father's death, to the beloved monarch nearing 90 that she is today.
Adding to the challenge is that Morgan doesn't set the scenes chronologically; a decision that allows him to balance moments for their dramatic worth, most effectively when her seeing through Anthony Eden's (Michael Elwyn) whitewash of Britain's involvement in the Suez Crisis mirrors a previous discussion with Tony Blair (Rufus Wright) regarding supporting America's war with Iraq.
Costume designer Bob Crowley and hair/makeup designer Ivana Primorac certainly make substantial contributions to the character's transformations (which often occur on stage) but it's Mirren who performs gasp-worthy changes in physicality and voice, as well as varying the character's emotional and intellectual development along with subtextual attitudes toward each of her guests while maintaining the expected demeanor.
It's a lot to communicate in very brief periods of time and Mirren does so masterfully. This is great stage work. Her scene with the confrontational Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey in bulldog mode) has an underlying level of comradery for a fellow woman in high office and there's a good deal of warmth and perhaps a bit of friendship between her and the insecure Harold Wilson (a terrific Richard McCabe), who imagines he comes off as a "ruffian" compared with his high-born predecessor.
Though Mirren's performance is the star attraction, it doesn't overwhelm the play's fascinating charm and thoughtfulness in Daldry's graceful production. The Audience is a fully satisfying evening.