Review: The Audience

Susannah Clapp

March 10, 2013

Article taken from The Guardian.

Well, I didn’t believe in it but I was seduced by it. At least for a while. The Audience – the first surefire, unstoppable hit of the year – has been created to disarm all comers. Helen Mirren sparklingly reprises her passive-faced but steely-eyed performance as a Queen who is both stalwart and wistful. Stephen Daldry, the man who once said he would not mind being mayor of London, and who would do a spectacular job, brings to the production the giant flair that he brought to Billy Elliot and An Inspector Calls. Peter Morgan’s script nods at those not enamoured of all things monarchical, suggesting that underneath the perm there is something of a lefty brain. Real live corgis are unleashed.

Still, zinging moments are not finally enough to disguise the fact that Morgan’s very entertaining play is a skinny thing, a string of sketches dependent on high-grade mimicry. Based on the weekly meetings the Queen has held with Britain’s prime ministers since the second world war, The Audience deals in that mixture of real-life personnel and speculation with which Morgan has had such success, on stage, movies and television, in The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Deal. Since everyone has kept mum about these meetings, which are not minuted, no news is broken here. Morgan squeezes into his brief, non-chronological scenes each prime minister’s most famous traits. A top-flight cast impersonate meticulously.

There is no Tony Blair, no Alec Douglas-Home and no Edward Heath. The others are palpably if superficially there. John Major is given a conventionally modest, down-at-the-mouth script which takes the manner for the man: what with rail privatisation and Northern Irish talks, he might be thought to have left as deep a mark as more clamorous PMs. I had forgotten until I saw Paul Ritter how he used to keep nudging his specs up his nose. Cameron (the monarch has a snooze while he talks about Europe) is encapsulated by his knowledge of mobile phones, one of which goes off in the Queen’s handbag; Rufus Wright is as laminated and apparently poreless as the original. Richard McCabe doesn’t hit the whine of Harold Wilson’s voice but neatly replicates his stance, the odd way he had of putting his hands in his pockets and sticking them out. You don’t have to believe that Wilson would have teased Her Majesty about the dreariness of Balmoral (Bob Crowley’s design for that is as persuasively droopy as his Buckingham Palace is convincingly cavernous) to find this the most interesting encounter. Wilson is presented as a regal favourite: the Queen invited herself to dinner with him at Downing Street in a mark of favour extended to no other PM except Churchill.

It’s not the pop-up politics that is the magnet in The Audience, it’s the monarch. Ever since Prunella Scales unforgettably incarnated her (stolidly planted legs, dangling bag) in Alan Bennett’s marvellous A Question of Attribution, a ripple has run through spectators at the notion of seeing the Queen tread the boards. Helen Mirren – sometimes interrogated by a perter, more wayward, youthful version of herself – moves through some 60 years of regality. Pinched but sturdy, she slices her vowels without overdoing it. She knocks off a few decades by lightening her voice and slightly loosening the trademark clasped hands. She has to a T that focused yet faraway gaze. Thanks to Crowley, she also has a tremendous wardrobe: a New Look black frock; authentically awful poster-paint salmon red and turquoise straight-up-and-down dresses, with brooch above the bosom; kilt and headscarf. Her discreetly managed onstage costume changes are near-miraculous.

The carapace is glittering, but despite an air of satirical skittishness this is a play with a soft centre and a reverent stance. Churchill tips the spectators – not to say the audience – the wink about what they should feel early on: “One by one your prime ministers will fall under your spell.” Any jokes in Her Majesty’s vicinity are the mildest and most predictable of teases: she puts on three-bar electric fires in her mansions and is not absolutely sure where she might find a book. There are two or three big sentimentalities here. The first is that the Queen is, really, just “ordinary”. She is not ordinary: she has spent her life in one palace or another. The second is that being “ordinary” is somehow meritorious, that we should be frightened of being extraordinary.

Finally, The Audience peddles the idea of the Queen as a necessary corrective to her prime ministers. The youthful Elizabeth instructs her older self: “You’re allowing complicated people, overcomplicated people, to measure themselves against something unchanging. Permanent. Simple.” Passive woman acts as corrective to wayward powerful men? Haven’t women done enough of that? Is the Civil List really there to save us shelling out for psychiatrists for our prime ministers?

Script developed by Never Enough Design