By Peter Morgan
Gielgud Theatre, 35 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6AR
Until June 15, 2013
Peter Morgan’s new play The Audience is a supremely crafted entertainment, crowned with a pitch-perfect portrayal of HMQ by Dame Helen Mirren. The run is nearly sold out and the clamour for tickets is such that the plan is to relay it live to cinemas worldwide on June 13th. The Audience is An Event.
Every Tuesday evening at 6.30 for the past 60 years British prime ministers of the day have trooped off to Buckingham Palace for a one-to-one with the Queen, safe in the knowledge that no minutes are taken and no staff from either side is allowed to be present. As a constitutional monarch, The Queen has no power, but lots of influence. She has the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn.
The significance of these chats shouldn’t be underestimated in that nobody has ever revealed their content. After recovering from being initially star-struck, prime ministers soon settle into their rhythm and embrace a rare opportunity to unburden themselves, safe in the knowledge it won’t end up in some memoir. For most PMs, Margaret Thatcher excepted, these were like trips to the shrink.
Morgan knows how to make an audience chuckle and Mirren delivers his perfectly crafted lines with great aplomb, but the evidence for these portrayals of the PMs is pretty non-existent. The piece rather lazily panders to received ideas about these figures. Was John Major (Paul Ritter), a cultured and intelligent man, really such a ninny? Would he have been so self-abasing in her presence? Was Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), an Oxford Don and a wily old fox, really so gauche? And can we buy him as such a cuddly bear? Was Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker) ever likely to unbutton himself to this extent? Was Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn), mired in the Suez Crisis that finished him off, really likely to have been twitching like some errant school kid before this young and inexperienced woman? In the end it’s mere posh tittle-tattle.
Mrs Thatcher (Hadyn Gwynne in fine form) probably comes out the best of the bunch, but only because, when we meet her 7 years into her reign, power had transformed her into a caricature of herself already. Gwynne, with the help of choreographer Arthur Pita, has her insistent gait down to a tee. In this version, she storms in, accusing the Palace of spinning against her and, rather sensibly, The Queen backs down.
Curiously, Morgan leaves Blair out, presumably because he did him in the movie The Queen. But surely theirs would have been the most interesting relationship. He, after all, saved her skin on the weekend of Diana’s funeral, when the rabble was at the gate, baying for an emotionalism which the Windsors couldn’t deliver. The decision to drop Blair might fit neatly with the zeitgeist (we’re supposed to hate him now) but Morgan really should have taken the long view.
Director Stephen Daldry, fresh from his stint on the Olympics, reminds us what a great loss he’s been to the London stage. He beautifully shapes this material and Morgan’s decisions to break the chronology and have the Queen’s younger self appear to her between scenes are both clever choices.
The eight prime ministers we meet are all perfectly etched, with Edward Fox gamely stepping in as Churchill, replacing an ill Robert Hardy, but it is Mirren’s show. She inhabits the role like a glove and beautifully calibrates the maturing woman: from the clipped tones of her youth, to the dry as dust matriarch of today. Mirren barely leaves the stage and the lightning fast costume and wig changes are a tribute to both her energy and the art of the Dresser. Bob Crowley’s designs, too, perfectly convey Buck House in all its gloomy majesty.