Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Audience (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

If you caught Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning turn in the “The Queen,” written – as was “The Audience” – by Peter Morgan, you will not be surprised to hear that the actress is highly adept at capturing Queen Elizabeth II to the life. And on this occasion, I can report that her on-stage portrayal is no less vivid than her celluloid one.

But if you’re thinking that a play built on the structure of the Queen meeting one-by-one with her Prime Ministers (there have been 12 in all, in real life), might turn into a tiresome succession of dry encounters, you’d be wrong, for Morgan has most ingeniously devised his play to skirt that problem. Eschewing the expected chronological structure, the play instead jumps back and forth over time, and there's even an interlude at the royal residence at Balmoral.

There is, for instance, a neat juxtaposition of Anthony Eden’s Suez misadventure and Tony Blair’s gung-ho resolve to invade Iraq.

There’s plenty of humor, and the play also gains depth and variety with Morgan’s poignant device of Elizabeth as a young girl (an excellent Sadie Sink at my performance), as she grapples with the realization that she may one day she be queen. So, too, there are some other secondary characters such as Geoffrey Beevers’ Equerry who helpfully sets the stage at a number of key moments.

Not all the encounters are entirely cordial. This Elizabeth pushes back when she feels she must, and there is, as you might expect, definite tension in the audience with Margaret Thatcher.

The Prime Ministers are nearly all satisfying. We Yanks don’t know them as well as native Brits, but the portrayals are all fine enough, even if Dakin Matthews’ Winston Churchill and Judith Ivey’s Thatcher are not the dead ringers we've seen in other dramatizations.

But Dylan Baker’s John Major; Michael Elwyn’s Eden; Rod McLachlan’s Gordon Brown; Rufus Wright’s David Cameron and (briefly) Blair are all excellent. The standout, partly because he was a favorite of the monarch, and because Morgan paints him so endearingly is Richard McCabe’s Harold Wilson. McCabe won an Olivier Award for this role, joining Beevers, Elwyn, Wright among the cast members reprising roles they played across the pond.

Still, this is Mirren’s show. And she is absolutely at the top of her game, skillfully portraying the lady at all ages and moods. Some of Mirren’s quick costume (and wig) changes are quite astonishing and a show in themselves.

Stephen Daldry directs with a grand sense of occasion on Bob Crowley’s imposing Buckingham Palace and Balmoral sets, evocatively lighted by Rick Fisher.

We’ll never know truly how close Morgan’s imagining of the Queen’s weekly audiences come to the mark (as these encounters are, in fact, held in strictest confidence), but the dialogue and the staging never feel less than authentic. And if Her Majesty were ever to see “The Audience” I doubt she’d fail to be pleased by seeing herself as a smart, dedicated stateswoman holding her own so capably and steadfastly over the decades, with an Everyman decency and pragmatism, never wavering in her sense of duty.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.; or by calling 212-239-6200; through June 28)
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