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New York Review: THE AUDIENCE

By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Anglophile heaven: Helen Mirren, the queen of the British stage, plays the Queen of England majestically and regally—and also slyly and wittily and altogether sympathetically.

The title of this new play by Peter Morgan refers to the fact that every Tuesday evening, for twenty minutes, for sixty years, Queen Elizabeth II has met with her Prime Minister.  Twelve of them, "and counting," as she reminds us. The audience is "not an obligation, but at curtesy."

Since each meeting is "headlines only," we get a cavalcade of prime ministers and a rundown of British politics, from WWII, with Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) to David Cameron (Rufus Wright), the current head of government.  UK tradition requires that the sovereign always agrees with the government, regardless of her private convictions, as is forced to accede to the bully, Margaret Thatcher (the redoubtable Judith Ivey) wearing similar jewelry to the Queen's: a diamond brooch and a double strand of pearls. Especially interesting are Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan) and Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe).

We watch the Queen's sympathy for the African countries in the Commonwealth go unheard when the PM is a racist, and we glimpse her love of Scotland, when, at Balmoral Castle she is suddenly a plaid-wearing, bouncy hostess, serving drinks herself.

We see time passing, since, as the play moves up and back through six decades, Mirren becomes older—white-haired, thicker around the middle, slower-- and then younger—dark-haired, slim, lively –and all the stages in between, as miraculous wig-changing and dress-changing happen onstage (clever, clever direction by Stephen Daldry). Mirren can, of course, change her walk and her facial expression to make years disappear.

It struck me that four interesting observations emerge from a play that easily distracts us from its ideas with its charm:

One war is much like another; the Suez crisis and Iraq, separated by decades, are presented to the Queen by different PMs in exactly the same language;

All the PMs seem to go "mad," suffering from Alzheimer's, dementia, OCD and/or depression; the Queen wonders whether the job attracts such people or destroys them;

Tradition erodes through time; the rigorous ceremonial hand kissing and backing away from the royal presence, diminishes as time goes by;

Finally, and the heart of the The Audience, is the responsibility of being a monarch, "the postage stamp with a pulse."  The girl she was, the "Heiress Presumptive," (the lovely Elizabeth Teeter), chafes against her confinement within Buckingham Palace. She eventually learns that "no one will ever call you by your name or look you in the eye," and in a tender moment, she and her older self stand, looking out the window.  Young Elizabeth wonders where all the busy people on the street are going, what they are doing. The wistfulness is unsentimental and surprisingly moving as we have witnessed the Queen learn, "We're not like everybody else; that's the point of us."


Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W.45th St. NYC