Seven years after she first graced our screens as Queen Elizabeth II, Dame Helen Mirren makes her Royal Return as she revisits the role of the monarch in a new play by Peter Morgan. ‘The Audience’ is a recent addition to the West End, and little over a week after its unofficial opening, is already dazzling London’s audience.
The eagerly anticipated play offers an interpretive glimpse into the weekly meetings between the Queen and her Prime Minister, spanning the years from Churchill to Cameron. After more than 60 years on the throne, the Queen has seen no fewer than twelve PM’s pass through the black front door of No.10; those referred to by Mirren as ‘The Dirty Dozen’. To ensure confidentiality at these meetings, no private secretaries are present at the audience, and no minutes are taken. As Head of the State, the Queen must always remain politically impartial – abstaining from any direct political involvement. Former Prime Minister Edward Heath wrote of these audiences with Her Majesty that ‘You can speak with complete confidentiality to her. You can say things that you would not say even to your Number Two’.
And taking on the role of our formidable monarch (twice no less) is certainly no mean feat. Mirren delivers her performance with all the aplomb of an actress who just so happens to have an Academy Award, four BAFTAs, three Golden Globes and four Emmy Awards under her belt. And did we forget to mention the DBE? That’s ‘Dame’ Helen Mirren to you and me. Anyone who has seen ‘The Queen’ (2006), will know that Mirren’s resemblance to Elizabeth II is somewhat uncanny. Perhaps it’s the straight-back stance, the pastel-coloured dresses or the sturdy black Launer handbag, but no-one can deny that Mirren captures HM the Queen down to a royal tee. Even more impressive are the costume changes, many of which take place seamlessly onstage with the sort of magic one only ever finds in the theatre. Seriously, it’s impressive.
‘The Audience’, whilst focusing on the balance between politics and the monarchy, also has audiences laughing with its sharp display of wit and humour. All in all, it’s a rather British affair. Joining Mirren onstage is an array of British actors and actresses, including Robert Hardy (Churchill), Haydn Gwynne (Thatcher) and Richard McCabe (Wilson) to name but a few. Not to mention the Corgis (yes, real ones). The play offers both a political and yet personal reflection on the Queen herself. Mirren, on several occasions is accompanied onstage by a young Elizabeth, played by one Maya Gerber – a star in the making who captures the ‘very proper’ accent of the young Princess Elizabeth with uncanny likeness. In these moments, Mirren illustrates a subconscious link between her child and adult self. She portrays a rather more vulnerable sovereign; a figure less seen in the public eye, and yet manages to capture the Queen’s quick wit and sense of humour brilliantly.
All in all, ‘The Audience’ is a true triumph, offering a wonderful interpretation of what may happen behind the closed doors of the Palace, revealing the delicate balance between politics and power. Margaret Thatcher, the Queen’s longest serving Prime Minister wrote in her memoirs that ‘Anyone who imagines that they [the audiences] are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly business-like, and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience’. This intelligent reconstruction throws light on the workings a modern constitutional monarchy – a system that has worked in British politics for hundreds of years. Mirren’s performance is quite simply sublime. And the accurate performances of each PM, from the abrupt, straightforward mannerisms of Churchill, to the formidable ‘no nonsense’ stance of the Iron Lady, are sure to have audiences in peals of laughter.
Unfortunately, ‘The Audience’ will not be running for the same amount of time as these real audiences with the Queen have been. She has over 60 years of political experience after all, far more than any serving politician – although some of them have certainly tried to hang on for long enough. The play will be onstage at the Gielgud Theatre until June 15th. And for anyone who doesn’t manage to see it onstage, it will be broadcast live in cinemas around the world on June 13th, as part of the National Theatre Live scheme. One wonders if HM the Queen will be watching..