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New York City Theater

"The Audience"
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater

They called Elizabeth I “Gloriana.” Now we have “Glorious” in the person of Helen Mirren who plays Elizabeth II in “The Audience,” Peter Morgan’s dignified, funny, sketchy and unexpectedly moving work about the relationship between the monarch and her various prime ministers. Regal and down to earth, sincere and ironic, Mirren’s every gesture, posture, lift of chin and glint of eye conveys the dichotomy of a woman secure in her beliefs yet a monarch restrained by her position. It is a triumphant performance.

In the play, Elizabeth’s personality emerges, with all its constraints and unsung accomplishments, as she chats with eight prime ministers who met with her in a weekly, private audience over a period of 60 years. (Elizabeth actually had a dozen PMs.) No one really knows what transpired between monarch and statesman – the conversations were neither recorded nor transcribed – so Morgan imagines the nuts and bolts details, the public assurances and private doubts of people in power, told in non-chronological order.

From the formality of Winston Churchill to the familiarity of Harold Wilson, from the petulance of John Major (an amusingly weepy Dylan Baker) to the aggressive admonishments of Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey as a dangerously acerbic witch), from the snobbishness of Anthony Eden (a dapper Michael Elwyn) to the eagerness of Tony Blair (an unwavering Rufus Wright), the playwright’s shorthand characterizations are insightful and informative.

What’s missing, though, is an overall dramatic arc which Morgan papers over at times, such as linking Eden’s Suez policy with Blair’s Iraqi one. “The same ideas, the same people come round again and again, just wearing a different colored tie,” we’re told, as Eden’s prediction that Egyptians will “cheer our soldiers” is eerily prescient of what Blair expected would happen when British and American troops marched into Baghdad.

Morgan attempts neither pageant nor historical perspective on how these private audiences may have affected public events. What he does accomplish, what is ultimately moving and even stirring about “The Audience” rests with Mirren. Although the queen is traditionally relegated to an advisory position (“It is the custom, not the law,” says Churchill, in the person of a masterful Dakin Matthews), she is, after all, a human being.

Mirren brilliantly keeps that to the fore. From the young, inexperienced Lilly-Bett thrust into her position by the sudden death of her father, to the imperial monarch desperately trying to keep not only her yacht  in a time of austerity but rescue the Commonwealth itself from obscurity, Mirren tempers Elizabeth’s divine right with tolerance and compassion.

Call her Elizabeth the Confessor as she listens to the musings of her ministers. Although she must maintain objectivity, she bends with Labour’s Harold Wilson, superbly embodied by actor Richard McCabe in an award-winning performance. Here she can be more herself: humorous, empathetic, honest. To Wilson’s friendly needling, his suspicion that her true concerns are at least as much for her lowly subjects as the aristocracy, this “postage stamp with a pulse” replies, “We’re not like everyone else – that’s the point of us.” Yet, in flashbacks to her girlhood, we see her misgivings.

Directed with a firm, benign hand by Stephen Daldry, against Bob Crowley’s elegant design (look for the diminutive throne room far upstage as a reminder of the queen’s ceremonial role), his era-defining costumes and Ivana Primorac’s wigs, “The Audience” is more than a an episodic history lesson guided by a straight-laced Equerry (the antic Geoffrey Beevers). It is, rather, a lesson in theatricality, guided by an actress who soars.

--David A. Rosenberg
March 10, 2015

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