The Audience (National Theatre Live)
Helen Mirren takes another stab at Queen Elizabeth II in the National Live film of this big hit from last year. The setup reminded me of Handbagged (now playing in the West End), but whereas that show concentrated on the queen’s weekly meetings with Margaret Thatcher, this one imagines the meetings with the full range of prime ministers during her 60+-year reign, featuring eight of the 12 total. No one knows what was actually said at those meetings, so the playwright (whose film The Queen envisioned the monarch upon the death of Diana) has conjured up his own imagined dialogues based on history, the personalities of those involved, and his own whim. In giving the sovereign the rundown on the latest political news, the prime ministers also touch upon their own thoughts and feelings and troubles, which she encourages. Her role as presented here is largely personal counselor for lonely prime ministers, though she does ask some penetrating questions at times, especially in the Suez Crisis and Thatcher dialogue. While she obviously does not approve of the government’s position in every case in this telling, as in those last two examples, she makes it clear that she will support the government no matter what (though the Thatcher case was in fact a bit more complicated). This was a different viewpoint than the earlier show, which showed her mainly wanting good gossip. She emerges as perceptive, dedicated, truly religious and immensely appealing, acutely aware of her status and its limitations. When Thatcher speaks of the Commonwealth as “tribal leaders in eccentric costumes”, the queen wryly notes that that pretty much describes her. When the queen begs the government movingly not to take away her yacht, one of her few places of solace from a life she never asked for but never abandoned, it is completely credible.
The show jumps about in time, opening with John Major in breakdown mode (a nice teary performance). It then goes back to Churchill, the queen’s first prime minister, who tries to give her lessons on how these meetings should be handled, and back and forth to others until reaching David Cameron (talking of Obama and smartphones – the queen falls asleep) at the end. The show is narrated by a palace official, who injects explanations when needed. The device sounded dodgy but proved very effective, giving just enough of a glimpse of each leader to offer a good prism of the queen’s time in power. That involved impressively rapid costume and wig changes, some carried out right on stage – the first makeover, from middle age to her 20s, drew a big wow from the audience. The queen’s hairstyle and clothing are so attuned to each era that her getup alone told us roughly where in her reign we were supposed to be. The costume and hair designers deserve a big hand. The queen’s younger innocent self also popped in from time to time to chat, again a hoary technique that turned to be moving.
I wish I knew more about some of these administrations, but the issues were generally pretty obvious. The most memorable was Harold Wilson, apparently a working-class country bumpkin who somehow ended up at top without really wanting it (like the queen, in a way). The gee-whiz attitude he enters with seemed over the top as he snaps personal photos with the queen and gapes at his surroundings, but his forthrightness and lack of pretentiousness were refreshing; he was presented as the queen’s favorite. Thatcher was as usual shown in an unsympathetic light, though her complaint about being undermined by a royal leak did seem justified if true. I was surprised that Tony Blair didn’t show up, though maybe the writer felt he’d said all he needed to say about him in The Queen.
Helen Mirren was as good as it gets. She managed to be majestic but still down to earth, making the queen a graceful and sympathetic three-dimensional figure. Her subtle body movements at each age were spectacular. That was great acting. She was matched by a superb Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson, including an astonishing memory trick with pi. His confession that he had Alzheimer’s was extremely poignant and beautifully written and performed. The Anthony Eden guy was also excellent in the crucial Suez sequence, and the Major and Cameron were fine as well. Thatcher was fiery enough but not nearly as good as the Handbagged woman, though that was partly due to her physical appearance (she towered over the queen). Thatcher is an iconic figure herself, so while it may be unfair to say, I wish they had tried harder to find someone more appropriate looking.
The direction was outstanding, ensuring a smooth flow from past to present and back and giving each scene just enough movement to keep it interesting. It was helped immeasurably by great lighting and the rapid-fire costume and wig magic. The set was appropriately elaborate (especially the Balmoral mountains), giving a good sense of grandeur, though all they really used for the most part was just two chairs. There were other nice touches, like the two corgis (of course) and the stirring tableaux at the end showing the queen with all 12 of her prime ministers. Despite the lack of an A-to-Z story, the show was compelling and eminently watchable. I suspect it does need a strong central performance to work at all, and they were lucky or smart enough to have that in Mirren. Since this is unlikely to travel outside the UK, I’m glad I caught it, even if just on film.