Long Live the Queen!

Long Live the Queen!

Helen Mirren as the queen entertains Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), arguably her favorite prime minister, at Balmoral in Scotland.

That Helen Mirren is every bit as majestic onstage as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s new Broadway play, The Audience, about the queen’s weekly one-on-one with the prime minister of the day, should come as no surprise to fans of her Oscar-winning performance as Her Majesty in Morgan’s script for the film The Queen several years ago. Mirren commands the stage of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre as the real queen commands the island nation and worldwide commonwealth—with grit and grace. What Morgan has imagined, and what the actress so effortlessly realizes, is the woman, the human being, behind the figurehead. With split-second timing and lightning-fast wig and costume changes, more often than not in full view of the theater audience, Mirren transforms herself from an octogenarian of immense knowledge and political skill into the hesitant but fiercely determined twentysomething monarch who takes on her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, at his own game. The transformation goes beyond window-dressing, however, with Mirren matching her body language to each passing decade. The slowing gait, the hunched posture, the endearing way she (in character) goes up on tiptoe, rocks on her heels, shrugs her shoulders. Famous for saying nothing (but, in saying nothing, saying everything), the queen is part counselor, part mother, part adversary to the 12 prime ministers who have served her since her ascension to the throne in 1952 upon the death of her father, George VI. (Of the 12, only Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home and Edward Heath do not receive stage time, though they do, of course, come up in conversation.)"

The audiences Morgan has dramatized can be charming (Harold Wilson), virulent (Margaret Thatcher), courtly (Churchill) and therapeutic (John Major). That this is fictionalized history is never in doubt; no records are ever kept of the real audiences and neither of the only two people in the room at the time would ever reveal what transpired. But it is plausible history, wonderfully entertaining even for those who are not Anglophiles. Stephen Daldry directs economically and intellectually, with a steady pace that even after 2 hours and 20 minutes left this audience member clamoring for more.

The supporting cast, many of them Americans enlisted for the Broadway production of the play that premiered in London’s West End in 2013, is outstanding. Dylan Baker shines as insecure and neurotic John Major, who would rather be at Lord's watching cricket than leading a political party much less a nation. (The queen empathizes because she, too, longs to be out of the fishbowl.) Rod McLachlan exudes striving as overweight Gordon Brown, whose every waking moment prepared him to become prime minister, but whose performance in the job failed his and the country’s expectations. You literally feel his sweat and panic. Judith Ivey captures Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, with a ferocity that is spellbinding and terrifying to witness. Like the queen, we cower in our seats when Thatcher starts her harangue. These two ladies with black handbags going at each other, woman to woman, give Morgan juicy material. Perhaps best of the lot is Richard McCabe from the original London cast, whose Harold Wilson is as finely drawn as Mirren’s Elizabeth. Fated not to like or even feel comfortable in each other’s presence, the Labour PM and hereditary monarch relax and ultimately strike up a friendship and working partnership that is warm, wise, dramatically intense and ultimately moving. Wilson’s admission that his brilliant mind is slowly giving way to Alzheimer’s is as heartbreaking for us as it is for the queen.

Ultimately, no matter how opinionated and informed about world events she is (the Suez crisis in the mid-1950s is handled adroitly, as is the situation in Iraq), the queen ultimately must abide by the Constitution and, like a dutiful sovereign, stand by her prime ministers, no matter what she, as a well-informed citizen, feels and believes. One belief remains as constant as the queen’s seven-decade presence on the throne, however: the belief that she was born to the role and will play it out to the very end. Prime ministers come and go, but she, the queen, is always there. Audiences would stand by Helen Mirren even if the play were less than her considerable talents. Fortunately, The Audience is everything a historical drama should be—and so much more.

The Audience, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.239.6200, www.theaudiencebroadway.com. Limited engagement thru Jun. 28.

All photos ©Joan Marcus, 2015