Review: The Audience

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The Audience is a new play on in London based on intelligent speculation surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s weekly meetings with the Prime Ministers (stretching from Churchill to Cameron). Since there is no documentation, there is no evidence that anything in The Audience actually happened but this does not prevent it from being a political and artistic masterpiece.

 From the moment Helen Mirren walks on stage, the audience are not focusing on the famous actress standing in front of them, they are focusing on the Queen. In this play Helen Mirren does not appear to be acting the role of the Monarch; she is the Monarch. On stage are two chairs and a table where the Queen and the different Prime Ministers converse on a wide range of subjects throughout the play. The thematic rather than chronological organisation of the play is a surprising yet piercing technique. It allows the audience to make connections between the various meetings and it is the collection, rather than the individual vignettes, which makes the play so powerful.

The acting is exquisite. The Young Elizabeth played by Maya Gerber in the production I saw was pitch perfect. Her soft tone and precise diction created the feeling that we were listening to a clip of the Queen, in her early days, not a young fourteen year old from a school in North London. Her role provides a haunting backdrop to the central plot, giving us a greater understanding of how the early years shaped and moulded our present Monarch. There is a focus on how her life is not one she has chosen but one that was determined by God. Underneath the Queen’s witty remarks, surrounding her desire for invisibility, there is a sense of pathos as we remember the little girl in the earlier scenes wondering why she has to carry out this role, ‘what if I don’t want to?’ she says. The Audience thus enables us to see the side of the Queen which we cannot observe in public; for the most part there are only two characters on the stage, making this production unique in its entirely personal nature. The Queen is not just presented as a monarch; she is a human being, named Elizabeth Windsor who has thoughts, feelings and views just like the rest of us. The presentation of her relationship with Harold Wilson was for me, the most memorable aspect of the play. Of course, the Queen is to remain completely objective but when Wilson decides to resign due to his recent diagnosis of alzheimers, she silently wells up and suggests he invites her and Prince Philip to dinner; an honour only once before bestowed, in her 61 year reign, to Churchill.

The most delightful aspect of the play though, has to be the humour. The Queen herself is presented as quick and witty; she does not suffer fools. Helen Mirren’s timing means her lines are delivered at just the right moment to send the audience into fits of laughter; her head slowly drops and her eyelids begin to close, as she listens to David Cameron blandly describe his new policy. You do not need an in depth understanding of the twelve Prime Ministers during her reign but in order to appreciate the political remarks within the play, a brief knowledge is certainly beneficial. Thatcher’s extreme self-interest is cleverly articulated when actress, Haydn Gwynne, makes the decision that their twenty minute meeting must come to an end. Nevertheless, the sensitive amendment to the production, following Thatcher’s death, is dealt with in a respectful manner.  

In The Audience Mirren is not playing the role of the Queen as we see her, an ambassador for our Kingdom, instead, she acts as counsellor, companion and confessor for twenty minutes every Tuesday (until Blair that is, who changed their meeting to a Wednesday). The only person missing from this five star production was, Tony Blair, Britain’s longest serving Labour Prime Minister. It seemed odd that his name only featured in fleeting remark made by the Queen. There need not have been a direct meeting with Blair but it would have contributed to the historical nature of the play if he had, just like Edward Heath, featured as a ghost of the past. All in all, though this play is magnificent and Helen Mirren, at 67 years old, is most certainly the Queen of the West End. 

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