Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 8, 2015
The Audience A new play by Peter Morgan. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Designed by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Rick Fisher. Sound designer by Paul Arditti. Composer Paul Englishby. Hair and make-up designe by Ivana Primorac. Cast: Helen Mirren, Dylan Baker, Geoffrey Beevers, Michael Elwyn, Judith Ivey, Dakin Matthews, Richard McCabe, Rod McLachlan, Rufus Wright, Anthony Cochrane, Graydon Long, Jason Loughlin, Michael Rudko, Henny Russell, Tracy Sallows, Sadie Sink, Elizabeth Teeter, Tony Ward.
I wish I could tell you. It often seems as though part of the point of Morgan's script and Stephen Daldry's production is to so confuse the two women that, in the end, you're left certain they're one and the same. Given that Mirren has already won sweeping acclaim and an Academy Award for playing the same role in the 2006 film The Queen, for which Morgan wrote the screenplay, that's not a complicated journey to make. And given how good everyone is here at pushing just that agendaif few othersit's also not an unenjoyable one.
The creators do not arrive there through the front door. Rather, they do so through an intricate mix of the public and private lives that have defined Elizabeth's life, both in front of and away from the cameras. The play's through lineplot is not quite an accurate descriptorconcerns her weekly 20-minute catch-up meetings with her prime ministers, from the first after she assumed the throne in 1952 (Winston Churchill) to the currently serving one (David Cameron), the contents of which have always been known only by two people there in the Private Audience Room.
Over the course of those 63 years (which are told in a more stream-of-consciousness than sequential way), the evolving priorities and passions of the British people are reflected only through the prime ministers. Churchill (played by Dakin Matthews) is a staunch Conservative traditionalist who gives way to the likes of the populist firebrand Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), Iron Lady reformer Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey), and the later, squishier likes of Cameron and Tony Blair (Rufus Wright in both cases), John Major (Dylan Baker), and Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan). Yet her interactions with each of them tell us everything we need to know about Elizabeth.
She's brash at the start, relatively unprepared for the expectations into which she's stepped, and tentative about changing the status quo Churchill represents; the positions are largely reversed when Wilson comes in pledging scorching Labour reforms that acknowledge the changes he sees on the streets where Her Majesty never walks. Because the prime ministers are so different, the Queen changes with each new scene, even though her outer persona never wavers from its intense stolidity. The snapshots we see of her, at any age, are clearly always of the same Elizabeth.
Through it all, Mirren highlights all the conflicts within Elizabeth: between the duty she owes to the storied monarchy and the people she's presently serving, between her own (typically unstated) personal desires and the Right Thing, whatever that may be. This subtly but unmistakably humanizes someone who is forever apart from her subjects, but who doesn't bother to pretend that no such divide exists.
Mirren maintains enough of the enigma to sustain the mystery, but not enough to alienate youa tricky combination to execute, but a potent one. Her technical flawlessness is on vibrant display, too, as she drops decades in seconds to embody the unseasoned Elizabeth at 26, then reacquires them just as instantaneously upon leaping back closer to the weightier, more commanding Queen in the present.
It's a virtuosic turn, no doubt, if one that's ultimately muted by The Audience's struggles to conjure drama or wonder in other ways. The Queen was anchored by a single, transformative chapter in Elizabeth's lifethe death of Princess Diana and its aftermaththat allowed Morgan easy emotional access to the woman beneath the crown. He doesn't have that here, and the result is a play with a schematic, overly educational feel that even Mirren cannot completely overcome.
None of it is boring; Morgan has injected plenty of laughs, Daldry has directed with cunning and care, and the sets and costumes (Bob Crowley), lights (Rick Fisher), music (Paul Englishby), and sound (Paul Arditti) are exquisitely designed. And if the performances are a shade uneventhe American actors, particularly Ivey, skew a bit more toward caricature than their British counterparts (who originated their roles in the 2013 London premiere)they're all vivid portrayals of people who know they, too, are being vicariously shaped by history.
But no grand theme worthy of the pageantry emerges. Morgan seems to at once argue against the monarchy (as a relic of a less-enlightened age) and for it (provided the current occupant remains unchanged), while suggesting that the prime ministers are the ones who are really important. Though at times Elizabeth appears poised to submit to her own irrelevance, such moments are not developed enough over the course of the evening to have any real impact.
The resolute forcefulness Mirren marshals would make that impossible in any event. Her Elizabeth conquers each gentle challenge placed before her with effortless understanding of the power she wields, even if it's only functionary, which ensures she's always the center of attention in each exchange. You can't take your eyes off of her, and you don't want to, for fear you'll miss the opportunity to peer ever so slightly deeper into her soul and discover what makes her tick.
Again, whether it's Mirren or Elizabeth doesn't much matter. Whoever she is, she transcends the ordinary to become something richer, more complex, and more rewarding than what's around her. That's an accomplishment worthy of celebration, even if the rest of The Audience all too seldom is.