Her Majesty is majestic in “The Audience”

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How it’s New York: New York actors have taken some of the roles that were originally done in London, and of course, it’s a Broadway play, with a hot elizabethallticket.
How it’s English/Irish/Scottish: It’s the Queen of England. And she drinks a hot whiskey! (she calls it a hot lemon). And a lovely scene takes place in Balmoral, Scotland.

A lot of English accents were heard online for people waiting to get in to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre to see Helen Mirren play Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Gordon’s play, “The Audience.” No wonder: it’s a play about the meaning and future of the British monarchy, and it was a big success in London (that’s how it has quotes on the boards even before it’s opened here).

Americans don’t care as much about that going in, nor do we know without reference to the program (and  larger handy stock-card with Prime Minister names on it inserted) who is who. But we do care about great acting, and in Mirren, you get lots of that.

The conceit of the play is to trace the queen having a private audience with 12 different PMs, as they’re called. It’s really to the play’s credit that it skips around in time and doesn’t pose an obvious linear question. Instead, we start in 1995, then flash back to before her coronation, and then basically skip around.

elizabethscotlandYet the play never seems to ramble. There’s an urgency about it and a beauty, too. This queen is regal, yet still a person, lovable and occasionally mischievous. Mirren’s sly smiles at a little teasing witticism are irresistible.

Mirren pulls off a tour-de-force  (she won an Olivier Award for Best Actress for the role in England, and an

Think being a princess is fun? Think again.

Academy Award for the role in “The Queen”).   

The play is adapted from the movie “The Queen,” also written by Morgan– but it’s somehow more powerful as a play. Having the sets described rather than shown, by the Queen’s Equerry (Geoffrey Beevers) forces us to enter into this world. It’s a world with more at stake in the end than what seems to American eyes an obsolete symbol. Monarchy by the end of the play is shown to be something more, something that embodies a national spirit, when governments come and go. Stephen Daldry’s direction is clear, forceful, and fun. He brings us into the world of the play at once by having the Equerry explain its conceit. Two Beefeaters stay onstage during intermission. It’s tempting, just as it is at Buckingham Palace, to try to make them laugh.

elizabethblueWe open in 1995, when Elizabeth, already a senior citizen (she was born in 1926) is meeting with Prime Minister John Major (lovable,  hapless Dylan Baker). It’s a revelation when a costume change onstage puts her into an elegant black dress and young brown hair. Suddenly the queen is a young woman, 26, mourning for her father and meeting Winston Churchill (blustery, perfect Dakin Matthews).

These changes go on, old to young to middle-aged throughout the play and each is lovely and rather thrilling. (Honestly, even her chest gets younger and older. How did they do that?) Six-time Tony-winner Bob Crowley did both set and costume design and they are glorious. Her costumes are beautiful and tell us what year we are in immediately; the sets for Buckingham have a sense of immense space; the set for Balmoral includes a backdrop of the misty highlands. There are two adorable dogs that run on then, too.

Ivana Primorac designed the transformative wigs and makeup. who is so keen to keep tradition alive he doesn’t even want to sit down. Over the years we see the formality of the audiences change from people awkwardly bowing out of the room, to walking out with her.

Northerner, commoner Harold Wilson (endearing Richard McCabe) has several scenes, and it’s implied that his mixture of shyness and forthrightness wins a special place in her heart. Who could resist when he takes a picture (with an old Polaroid camera, which gets its own laugh) and pretends it’s for his wife, then immediately admits it’s really for him?

elizabethportraitThink being a princess is fun? Think again. Elizabeth never wanted this role: she became a royal princess only after her uncle Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, and her father George became George VI. As Young Elizabeth, Elizabeth Teeter beautifully shows her earnest disappointment at moving from a house with neighbors to an echo-y castle, at having to have a bodyguard around all the time, of having her own friend be forced to call her “ma’am.” It sucks to be heir apparent. (As in many ways, it sucks to be queen.) She prays for her parents to have a boy. Teeter is a wonderful presence, beautiful and clever. Daldry nicely has Young Elizabeth and Elizabeth bounce on their toes at the same time.

Scenes that show how the Suez Canal and her doubting response to Sir Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) and the Iraq war and her doubting response to Tony Blair (elegant Rufus Wright,who also plays David Cameron) are a little heavy-handed. Similarly a scene with a mad-as-Hell, abrasive Margaret Thatcher (A growly Judith Ivey) is a little jokey. But never mind. It’s a pleasure to have this audience with Her Majesty.

It’s not an easy job. But, the play shows convincingly, someone has to do it.


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