Helen Mirren, who portrayed Queen Elizabeth on screen nearly a decade ago, revisits the enigmatic head-of-state in another exquisite interpretation, this time on stage in “The Audience” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Directed by Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliott”), “The Audience” was first produced on the West End in 2013, earning Mirren an Olivier to go along with her Oscar for “The Queen.”
While “The Queen” focused on the days and weeks after the death of Princess Diana, “The Audience” paints with a broader stroke, depicting Britain’s longest-reigning monarch in imagined private conversations with the prime ministers who have served during her incredible life, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. In all, we meet eight of the even dozen.
As a Royal Navy officer explains to theatergoers in a preamble to Peter Morgan’s drama—Morgan, author of “Frost/Nixon,” also wrote “The Queen”—it’s tradition for the monarch to have a weekly private audience with her Prime Minister. The meeting takes place in a room on the first floor of Buckingham Palace, and topics of discussion are understood to be confidential, even from spouses.
Most of the subdued “action” in “The Audience” transpires in this setting, though we detour in the second act to Balmoral, the royals’ summer residence, where the sovereign entertains Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe, with Mirren below). McCabe, also an Olivier winner for the same role, gives one of the most endearing turns of the season, in no part thanks to his animated and antiquated Polaroid photo-op with her royal highness.
Polished visual images aside, we have less a personal sense of Queen Elizabeth than we do so many members of American political “royalty.” How often do we ever even hear Elizabeth’s voice? Through a variety of often workaday anecdotes over two-plus hours, Mirren fills in the blanks, crafting a portrait of a tough and empathetic woman who has survived thanks to personal warmth, good humor and a profound sense of duty.
“The Audience” bounces around chronologically, beginning with a conversation between her majesty and John Major (Dylan Baker, of “The Good Wife”). Later, Mirren is at her most magnetic as she responds emotionally to a suggestion from Major that she decommission the royal yacht Britannia in order to stem a tide of resentment against the free-spending royals.
Morgan creates a sharp contrast between the politicians who glide through the revolving door at 10 Downing Street and the stoic constant of Buckingham Palace.
In discussion with Tony Blair (Rufus Wright, doing double duty later as David Cameron) about the impending invasion of Iraq, the queen pleads for a diplomatic resolution to the strife. Later in the play, in a scene set earlier in her lifetime, she makes nearly the exact same plea to Sir Anthony Eden, in regards to the Eisenhower-era Suez crisis.
“That's what happens if you stick round long enough,” she says to Blair. “The same people, the same ideas come round again and again—wearing a different colored tie.”
An icy tete-a-tete with Margaret Thatcher (the great Judith Ivey, to my mind conjuring as much Ann Richards as the Iron Lady) is a highlight of the second act.
Throughout, Mirren plays scenes opposite her younger self (Elizabeth Teeter, at the press performance I attended), which showcase the fragile peace she made as a girl with her preordained identity. Teeter and Mirren have a nice dynamic, mirroring each other’s particular physical movements.
The costume changes are engagingly “Cinderella”-esque, and make Mirren’s Elizabeth believable on both ends of a 50-year spectrum. Morgan’s script makes for a great history lesson, especially for those of us with trouble remembering U.K. politics before Thatcher. Some of the meetings may not be exactly scintillating, but they make you consider the grace with which Queen Elizabeth has endured the passing parade.
“The Audience,” through June 28 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. Tickets: $75-$145. Call 212-239-6200.