14 July 2013

'May I speak freely, your Majesty?'

Last night I caught another instalment in the National Theatre's NT Live performances - this time The Audience, with legendary Dame Helen Mirren reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth II from the 2006 film The Queen - the film that won Mirren an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe for her regal performance. Peter Morgan, the writer of that film, has delved back into the monarch's long relationship with the 13 Prime Ministers who have served during her reign (12 who took office during her reign plus Churchill, who was Prime Minister when she took the throne), and who all make the weekly journey to Buckingham Palace to discuss the state of the nation and the world with the head of state. While The Queen was focused on the crisis surrounding Diana's death and the relationship between the Queen and Tony Blair, in The Audience, Morgan has turned the spotlight onto Elizabeth's other Prime Ministers.

Blair does not appear at all, which was an interesting choice - given that the Prime Ministers do not appear in chronological order, I was expecting him to turn up at the end for a comedic finale full of fawning and self-regard. But he is not particularly missed, and in their audiences Gordon Brown and David Cameron both hark back to his exploits - Brown greeting jokes at Blair's expense with a rueful glee, and Cameron recollecting how hard he was to budge during the Tories' long years in opposition. Of the two most recent Prime Ministers, Brown's character is portrayed in a more well-rounded fashion (and with marked skill by actor Nathaniel Parker, who has the jaw-drop mannerism down pat) and with touching vulnerability as his struggles with his inner demons. Perhaps David Cameron is too recent a figure to have as much resonance - and in fact, for a moment when he first entered I wondered if the striding sharp-suited figure was meant to be Blair.

There are other fine Prime Ministerial performances in The Audience. Richard McCabe appears three times as Harold Wilson, lending credence to the view expressed in the script that Wilson was secretly one of Elizabeth's favourites. He also features in one of the play's funniest scenes, in which he proudly promises to display his photographic memory and asks for a book. Elizabeth casts about the Balmoral drawing room and, finding none, has to resort to the telephone to seek something so resoundingly unfamiliar as a printed work. 'Yes, hello. I would like a book. Doesn't matter which'.

Paul Ritter (Major) & Helen Mirren
Pic (C) Johan Persson
Edward Fox is gnarled and fusty as an ancient Churchill, top-hatted and gold-chained, tut-tutting at young Elizabeth's desperate wish to take her husband's surname or at least to hyphenate to preserve his manly pride: 'Double-barrelled? No, your Majesty. It's common'. John Major (Paul Ritter, excellent in Friday Night Dinner) gets two scenes, one of gently comic despairing at his unsuitability for the top job, and another in which he relays the ill news of the irrevocable split between Charles and Diana. In the latter, he reveals he tried out his negotiation tactics gleaned from the Bosnian crisis, to no avail. Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) cuts a tragic figure, dapper but ailing, weighed down with the pressure of underhand and ultimately disastrous conniving that led to the Suez Crisis of 1956. And Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne, of Billy Elliott: The Musical fame) offers a real battle of wills between a Commonwealth-loving Queen and a supremely confident Prime Minister deeply sceptical of any idealistic and in her view naive attempts to pass sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa.

A few Prime Ministers are omitted to keep things rattling along. James Callaghan is almost but not quite left out - wreaking havoc with the chronology, he bursts on during Cameron's session with Elizabeth and in a brief but entertaining cameo, demands not to be forgotten - but despite leading the UK for three years from 1976 to 1979, he is perhaps little known today thanks to the political tsunami Thatcher unleashed. Douglas-Home is mentioned once in passing, as is the 'odious' Heath (but then the adjective was offered by Harold Wilson, who was hardly an impartial observer). And from memory, Harold Macmillan (1957-63) is not even mentioned.

The natural constant in the production is of course Helen Mirren. Her performance as Elizabeth across seven decades shows off the Queen's lively wit, sound judgement, and occasionally a flash of her conscience as she plays 'tribal chief in exotic costume' - the tribe being 20th century Britons - receiving and offering counsel to the often anxious, haunted souls who inhabit the Prime Ministerial office. The playwright Morgan suggests that in offering a (mostly) impartial and confidential ear to powerful individuals, the Queen has played the role of therapist to the Prime Ministers who pass on their most private observations about the state of the nation. And in their own way, the Prime Ministers helped Elizabeth to grow as a stateswoman and to gain a greater understanding of the pressures faced by a nation in relative decline for much of her reign. Through all this, Mirren is expert at portraying the various stages of Elizabeth's life, from a slightly timorous mourning-garbed girl in her 20s, to the mannerisms of the bluff, wry middle-aged Queen, to the gentle cynicism and profound devotion to lifelong duty that is exhibited in a woman in her 80s who has performed an exhausting job for 60 years and whose only true retirement will come when she dies.

Helen Mirren & Nell Williams
Pic (C) Johan Persson
Aside from the random dose of Callaghan, The Audience is also inventive in portraying Elizabeth's childhood by casting Young Elizabeth as a separate role that the adult Queen reminisces with and gently chides. In the cast filmed for broadcast the role of young Elizabeth was played by the excellent Nell Williams, who nails the ethereal circa-1940 accent heard in wartime regal wireless broadcasts and that seems so alien now.

Aside from the skilled cast, it is also worth mentioning the fine costumes and umpteen wigs, which help to portray the various stages of Elizabeth's life. In a gesture to the theatrical arts, two important costume changes are handled imperceptibly and almost instantaneously on stage. With some clever trickery that was almost completely invisible to the viewer (presumably involving double-sided costumes) Elizabeth is transformed from mourning black to a smart red dress in mere seconds while staff whisk effortlessly around her. The audience even gasped when they realised. You begin to see why Mirren was so cross when a parade outside the Gielgud disrupted her performance - because The Audience is a play and a performance truly worth savouring.
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