Director: Stephen Daldry
Writer: Peter Morgan
Stars: Helen Mirren, Haydn Gwynne, Edward Fox, Paul Ritter, Nathaniel Parker, Rufus Wright, Michael Elwyn, and Richard McCabe
The Audience is a production of The National Theatre Live. It was a stage show that was broadcast live in the United Kingdom, and now that broadcast is being released in movie theatres across the United States.
Every Tuesday so long as both are in London, the Prime Minister meets with the Queen at Buckingham Palace at 6:30 PM for a private conversation about the state of the country. The meetings are not recorded, nor are there any notes taken. The meetings exist as a courtesy to the crown and are treated as private affairs.
What we are watching is a work of fiction that the writer, Peter Morgan, believes to be a truthful depiction of what occurs in these meetings, but not necessarily an accurate one. The interactions between the Queen and the Prime Minister reflect what is known about the relationship both individuals had with each other, and the assumption that after repeated meetings with each other both persons would start to view the meetings as therapeutic.
We start with the Queen (Helen Mirren) and John Major (Paul Ritter). He is lamenting the fact that he is Prime Minister, and almost views himself as an accidental Prime Minister. He prided himself that before he became the PM he was quite an ordinary person: a forgettable backseat parliamentarian, a person with a pedestrian education, a man who didn’t make waves. The Queen humorously admonishes him on why he became the Prime Minister if he never wanted it; his answer, “he didn’t think he would win.”
From John Major we jump back in time to the Queen’s first meeting with her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Edward Fox). The Queen is obviously nervous and unsure at the start; Churchill, the elder statesman, is set in his ways from the previous monarch. But over the course of the meeting the young Queen acquits herself admirably, revealing herself to by quite well informed and understanding the game of politics.
And so it goes, the audience with the Queen is shown at different times and with different PMs during her reign. On occasion the young Elizabeth is shown interacting with the Queen wondering why she has to learn something or why her life has to change. But as the production continues the young Elizabeth then has to remind the older Queen the importance of some of the lessons she has learned, as well as some of the small things she has forgotten.
The main set of the production is the minimalist audience chamber in Buckingham Palace. All the meetings with the Prime Ministers occur there with one exception. That being the second audience with Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe) at Balmoral Castle in Scotland–the Queen’s summer vacation home. Whereas all the audiences at the Palace are formal affairs, the Bamoral audience is decidedly less so–the Queen serving Wilson a tea and bringing him a blanket. The change in location not only marks a change in tone, but also demonstrates the chumminess of their professional relationship.
An impressive feature of the production was the ability to transform Mirren with make-up,wigs and costume to the different ages of the Queen almost always while on stage. The first time you watch it, it is a magic trick of wonder.
As for Mirren, she delivers another incredible performance as the Queen. She expertly conveys the Queen throughout the different stages of her life, as well as her different feelings towards the Prime Ministers. The Prime Minister themselves also deliver good to excellent performances. The two stand-outs, and also the two having the most stage time, are Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson and Paul Ritter as John Major. McCabe’s performance in particular is quite affecting.
Near the end the Queen asks her attendant if she had a favorite PM, and he answers she does. We go to Harold Wilson’s third audience with the Queen. At their first he was the commoner elected Labor PM, bringing a camera to the audience in order to have photos with the Queen for his wife. At their second they spoke as friends at Balmoral. And now at their third he reveals that he must resign soon; he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The Queen is heartbroken about his condition and the changes in him she already sees. But at the end of their audience she asks him if she and her husband would be able to dine with him and his wife at #10 Downing Street, an honor only accorded to Winston Churchill during her reign.
The Audience is a bittersweet production. Though humorous throughout, there is an ultimate melancholy to the story. The Queen may be the constant of British politics, but her ability to affect it are limited at best. Her job is to be the rock upon which all others can rest. But a rock that must maintain the same face no matter who is in power and how she feels about what they are doing. Her role is to support but never criticize.
Grade = A