So steeped in gravitas and detail is The Audience, you’d be forgiven an hour into the play for forgetting you were watching fiction. But fiction it is with Peter Morgan once again working his magic to offer an imagined insight into the life of one of the most famous, but little known, women in the world.
Each week the Queen holds an audience with the Prime Minister, a meeting immersed in tradition and bound by the strictest of confidences. Morgan’s light-hearted play takes a look through Elizabeth II’s “dirty dozen” of political subjects, from the authoritarian Winston Churchill (Edward Fox) to the expensive suited David Cameron (Rufus Wright).
In Morgan’s eyes these meetings become not only the stage for political revelations but also counselling sessions, with the Queen – played predictably magnificently by Helen Mirren – firmly in the therapist’s seat. An anxious, bumbling John Major (Paul Ritter) is a self-doubting nervous wreck as the pair surveys their chances of running Britain with three O-Levels between them and Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker) is a cross, frustrated outsider who moans to the Queen about feeling left out.
As the politicians come in and out of the Queen’s life at different points in their careers – sometimes desperately clinging to their fleeting time at the top, at other times looking for an excuse to resign – the balance of power tips. Haydn Gwynne as a truly intimidating Margaret Thatcher looks down her nose at the Royal, patronisingly suggesting they talk “woman to woman” as she becomes the first to call time on their weekly meeting while the Queen bristles noticeably with irritation, while the slick Cameron must contend with her senior years as she quickly nods off to soporific chat of the EU.
Mirren’s flawless performance captures the conflict of a life lived in the public eye. As the PMs come and go, her younger more rebellious self – played by an alternating trio of young actresses – appears on stage rallying against a life of falling in line and neutrality. Through a series of sensationally quick changes, Mirren is transformed from a young woman mourning the loss of her father into the Queen we know today; wigs and clothes only accounting for half of the transformation with everything from the way she moves and holds herself to the pitch of her voice subtly evolving.
Morgan’s portrayal of the Queen as politically astute, fiercely loyal and thick skinned is unwaveringly flattering. Her quick wit is only rivalled by her favourite PM – if she were allowed the privilege of opinion that is – Harold Wilson, played endearingly by Richard McCabe as a man lacking any airs and graces but thoroughly charming the Queen. In his presence she becomes a good sport who pours her own tea – well her own milk at least – and reveals a sentimental side.
In the end, however, Morgan’s play casts the Queen in the part people in places of power are often destined for, that of a woman isolated by her strangest of roles; a role Mirren carries majestically.