Talking with the queen

2013-08-01 00:00

HELEN Mirren is, without doubt, one of the standout actresses of her generation and in The Audience she delivers a tour de force performance.

During her 60-year reign, the British monarch has met each of her 12 prime ministers once a week at Buckingham Palace in London and at Balmoral Castle in Scotland to discuss matters of state.

The details of these meetings are completely private. No minutes are taken and both parties have an unwritten agreement never to speak about what is said.

In The Audience, playwright Peter Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film The Queen, starring Mirren in the title role, has imagined what might have been said during these audiences at pivotal moments in British political history, including the queen’s coronation, the Suez crisis, the worldwide recession, and the miner’s strike and crushing of the unions.

Other more personal discussions in the play include the estrangement of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the decommissioning of Britannia and the opening of the doors of Buckingham Palace to the public.

Throughout these sessions, the queen is something akin to a therapist. The Downing Street incumbents use her as a sounding board for their concerns and desires, and she, in turn, reveals her thoughts as she advises, consoles and sometimes teases.

Morgan admits that what he’s penned is not necessarily accurate, but he hopes that those watching The Audience will appreciate the truth in his fiction. I certainly did.

The play — which is directed by Academy Award-nominated director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot and The Hours) — opens with the queen speaking to John Major (Paul Ritter) in 1995.

The Tory prime minister is being plagued by backbench rebellions and fed up with members of his party briefing against him. Despite his very real anger, he is unsure what to do. After speaking to the queen, however, he decides to throw down the gauntlet to those inside and outside the Conservative Party, demanding that they either back him or sack him.

Using a selection of wigs and clever costume changes on stage, Mirren morphs into the queen as she was in the fifties, just after the death of her father, King George VI.

In the scene, she is meeting with Sir Winston Churchill (Edward Fox) for the first time and surprises him with both her feisty attitude and knowledge of the papers, which have been sent to her in the famous red box from Downing Street.

From Churchill, the play jumps to her first meeting with Labour Party prime minister Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe) in the sixties to Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker), who left office in 2010, Sir Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) in the fifties, Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne) in the eighties and Britain’s current prime minister, David Cameron (Rufus Wright).

Throughout the play, Mirren is convincing and praise must certainly go to the costume department for its outstanding efforts in transforming her into the queen.

Among my favourite scenes were those with Wilson, who Morgan imagines was one of her favourite prime ministers. There is a lovely moment when the Labour Party leader tells the queen that he believes a frugal woman lives inside the regal persona and in a different life would probably vote for his party.

Also powerful is the confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and the queen, following the publication of a front-page article in the Sunday Times in 1986, in which sources close to the monarch were quoted as saying she was “dismayed by uncaring Thatcher”.

The queen also shares her inner thoughts with the audience in the guise of her younger self. Nell Williams plays the young Elizabeth as a schoolgirl who is sad to leave her home and move to Buckingham Palace, and that people can no longer simply call her by her name. Instead, they have to say Ma’am and bow or curtsey.

The Audience is a truly brilliant piece of theatre. And, thanks to the National Theatre Live series, South Africans can enjoy watching it for a fraction of the price it would be if they had to fly to London and see it at the Gielgud Theatre.

The Audience is at Cinema Nouveau Gateway in Umhlanga on August 3, 4, 7 and 8. Don’t miss it.

• To book, visit or sterkine or call Ticketline at 082 16789.

• Watch the trailer here: http://ntlive.nation

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