The Audience, written by Peter Morgan; directed by Stephen Daldry; produced by National Theatre (part of National Theatre Live): seen July 19, 2016, originally broadcast June 13 15, 2013.
When I wrote about my chance to go to London two years ago, I mentioned how fascinated I had always been with British culture. When I took the tour of the Tower of London (which I still need to write up), I was pleasantly surprised how much of British history I actually did know. However, my viewing of both Trafalgar Studios’ Richard III (which took place in the ’70s) and of the National Theatre’s Great Britain (about the phone hacking scandal) made me realize that I still don’t know much about modern British history.
With that in mind comes the National Theatre’s The Audience. The premise is actually quite simple: Queen Elizabeth (played excellently by Helen Mirren) has a weekly meeting with the current Prime Minister in order to catch her up with what’s going on in the realm. But the conceit of this play is what makes it go from interesting to fascinating to me. Unlike the other piece written by Peter Morgan and starring Helen Mirren (the movie The Queen), this is not just one isolated incident, but her whole history – from a child first moving into Buckingham Palace to her first meeting with Winston Churchill (Edward Fox) all the way to the (at the time of broadcast) current PM of David Cameron (Rufus Wright). However, the play is not in chronological order: rather, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle or one of those 3D posters that were so popular in the mid-’90s, where you see bits and pieces from different eras and it’s not until late in the show when you realize what picture you’re getting.
There are two basic themes running throughout the play that are intertwined beautifully. The first is that the more things change, the more they truly are the same. While she meets with PMs when she’s young, the UK is dealing with economic distress, foreign leaders that are in need of watching, and she has a conversation that could easily be just as much about #Brexit as unification after World War II.
The second, though, is the idea that the more power you have, the less power you actually have. Despite being the ruling monarch of what used to be the greatest empire in the world, Queen Elizabeth doesn’t actually have much power. She doesn’t even have the ability to vote for the PM, as that would show partiality.
She is quick to find out from Churchill that – regardless of whether she actually personally supports any decision by the PM – as the monarch, she is obligated to always publicly support said decision. In the flashback scenes as a child and in small asides here and there, she does mention learning that she can very subtly nudge policies – and as the play progresses, you see her sharp wit and body language show her true feelings on the matter. Mirren, with no surprise to anyone, does an excellent job of that subtly – especially in the use of her hands, whether it’s offering a tissue with one hand while looking away to a death grip of a hand clasp showing how obvious it is that she wants to say something and can’t.
What makes this jigsaw of a puzzle go from intriguing to outright compelling to watch on stage, however, was the outstanding costumes and makeup. (In fact, in this screening version, the play is followed by a short behind-the-scenes bit with the costume supervisor Irene Bohan about the sheer amount of work that went into it.) In a stunning sequence in the beginning of the play, Mirren is transformed ON STAGE from the queen in her later years to when she was still starting out as the queen. And it’s the little things – from the added weight as the queen gets older to the changing of the accent (which Mirren discusses in a second ‘behind the scenes’ piece post screening) – that shows just how vital how the queen looks determines what era we are in. In fact, back to my original statement, as someone who doesn’t know as much about British politics as I should, it was the clothing and makeup that helped me determine the era as many of the PMs were unknown to me.
I’ve always found the Queen captivating, and the older I get the more I admire her. Whether it’s her wicked sense of humor (and the scene where her mobile phone goes off to a tune you’d never expect – and she blames the grandchildren) to her continued dignity despite the problems the other members of the royal family get up to, she’s always been like a substitute grandmother to me.
This work, while fictional, made me respect her even more, empathizing with her situation. And as a piece of theatre, it was one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. Gloriously acted, phenomenal tech, and a creative script. The production still has some screenings left, and I highly recommend it if you love theatre.
For more information, including a list of dates and locations of when it is screening, can be found at National Theatre Live’s website, and for more information about the NT Live Encore Series, visit Fathom Events.