Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dame Helen Mirren in 'The Audience'

Saturday evening I attended the opening night performance of The Audience on Broadway. The Audience is a new play written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry. The play tells the story of the weekly private audiences Queen Elizabeth II has given to her 12 Prime Ministers over the past 60 years. The lead role of Queen Elizabeth is played by the acclaimed English actress of stage and screen, Dame Helen Mirren. She is no stranger to portraying Elizabeth Windsor, having done so on stage in 'The Queen', and of course the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated film production of that play.

The play is a fictional representation of the weekly private audiences Queen Elizabeth II has given to her Prime Ministers, as no one truly knows what is discussed between the PM of the day and Her Majesty. However, over the years many British Prime Ministers have referenced the enormous value of having a trusted confidant with no political aspirations or motives in whom to seek advice or speak ones mind. It is a unique system unparalleled in modern government today. In particular, as the present queen's reign has spanned 60 years (and counting), there is virtually no one in government anywhere-- with such a unique perspective of time.  It is well known that the Queen takes genuine interest in matters of state and is exceptionally well informed regarding affairs of her British and Commonwealth nations. These private audiences, are the subject of this play.

The play masterfully crosses time of Elizabeth's reign, switching
back and forth between various ages of the Queen as she met with her Prime Ministers. The playwright does an excellent job imagining of how the newly ascended young Queen adapted and learned her role, asserting herself from the very start with Winston Churchill. While she had no experience in her first meeting, she was led by a deep belief in the sacred position as Sovereign.

Helen Mirren is superb; seamlessly shifting time, with remarkable full costume and wig changes--on stage, to emerge as a younger or older Queen before our eyes. The transitions between the various 12 PM's was far more than a mere change of supporting characters. Mirren takes the Broadway theatre audience into these private meetings with such skill, that you are drawn into the private meetings as if a fly on the wall.  Along some of the PM's conversations, at times there was a sense of desperation, baring their souls like school boys...a cathartic 20 minute meeting of sorts. It would have been unlike any other person in which they could confide with such sincerity. The Audience does a brilliant job with several PM's in particular-- those whose initial meetings were viewed with contempt, and later realized the enormous value and eventually grew fond of the Sovereign. Others remained cool and distant throughout. The author presents the viewer with the notion that Tony Blair was not one of Her Majesty's favorite ministers. A few subtle social commentaries may have been made by the author, but they did not distract from the play itself, and were quite amusing. While the Queen is constitutionally obligated to provide her support to all of her PM's she finds a way to make her views know without actually saying anything. It is a remarkable skill indeed.

Admittedly I am somewhat of an Anglophile and student of the British politics, so this play had enormous appeal to me. However, even without any knowledge of history of the 12 British Prime Ministers represented in this play, it is very entertaining. While Mirren is clearly the star of this production, it is truly an exceptionally talented ensemble cast who, in total make this a fine Broadway play of the day.

The PM's were from various parts of England and Scotland, and therefore the actors spoke with the appropriate accent, or played the  true person's manner of speaking flawlessly. The actors portraying Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson in particular seemed spot-on with the pitch, cadence of speaking and vocal style. The Broadway theatre was remarkably silent, as the largely American audience strained to understand some of the British accents. I overheard a few patrons saying they had trouble understanding some of the dialogue. Perhaps because I have spent a lot of time in the UK and watching the BBC that I had no difficulty whatsoever. 

This is a strictly limited engagement, so if you can get tickets to see The Audience, I highly recommend you do so while you can!

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