It’s always a pleasure to welcome Helen Mirren back to the Broadway stage. Her new vehicle by Peter Morgan, who served her well once before as author of “The Queen,” a film in which by playing Elizabeth II for the first time, she won herself a well deserved Oscar for best performance. Now here she is again, playing the same role, embodying Britain’s now and forever monarch, in a new work called The Audience.
Though written with intelligence and some wit, it’s not much of a play, but it does offer its star an opportunity to give further proof of her range, as it presents her in eight or ten short scenes with the various Prime Ministers who have served under her, beginning with Winston Churchill when her reign began in 1953 until the present David Cameron, who’s been P.M since 2010. Her weekly sessions are intended to keep her informed of what’s going on in England, over which she is titular head. She tends to think of herself as “a postage stamp with a pulse” but her present minister, Mr. Cameron, tells her “you have a way of saying nothing yet making your view perfectly clear.”
The problem is most of the news she receives is news to her, but old hat to us, as she is hearing it for the first time, and we are not. One or two of her meetings are with her younger self (young Elizabeth was beautifully played by Elizabeth Teeter at my performance; she alternates with another), and they do help to clarify some of her early yearnings and later frustrations). But for the most part, this play does not deal with her relationships with her parents, her sister, her husband or her children.
Mention is made of the freeze that separated her from her son Charles’ wife Diana, but that is dealt with more interestingly in the film “The Queen.” Peter Morgan remains fascinated by this family, and is currently working on a major series for TV, to be called “The Crown” which is to be aired on Netflix in 2016. Stay tuned.
But back to this stage production, now on at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway.
Nineteen actors are on the payroll to play the various Prime Ministers (in several cases, to play two of them) as well as the Equerry, Cecil Beaton, a bishop, a detective, an Archbishop, the Mistress of the Robes, and three ladies dressed in black who scoot on and off from time to time to help Ms. Mirren turn from 25 to 50 or from 65 to 31 with the zip of a zipper and the switch of a wig, plus the star’s barrel of acting tricks that allow her to project whatever age she needs to be to play her next scene. These meetings are not written chronologically, so she does a lot of age hopping during the 2 1/2 hour evening. A cast of top featured people make director Stephen Daldry’s work appear smooth as silky cream, and the Bob Crowley’s designs (I am assuming sets and costumes; the program bills him merely as “designer”) are splendid and contribute to the atmosphere required to conjure up the inside of Buckingham Palace.
Among the many fine actors, Dylan Baker as John Major, Dakin Matthews as Winston Churchill, Rufus Wright as David Cameron all enter in a stately manner, sit in one of the provided interview chairs (ancient ones with pedigreed design backgrounds), face us, and state their various cases.
Much admired Judith Ivey, winner of Tony, Drama Desk, Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for her marvelous work in Broadway’s most recent revival of The Heiress as well as four television series and innumerable films, has been (mis)cast as Margaret Thatcher to whom Ms. Ivey has attached a highly original accent that places her somewhere between England and Texas and renders her virtually incoherent but she moves well, and has the great presence of the fine actor that she is. However, she is the one who seems to have dropped in on the wrong play. I do believe she thinks she’s playing Sue-Ellen Gamadge, head of the unnamed Women’s Movement of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. In the last hit revival of the Vidal play, Gamadge was played by Angela Lansbury, the British gem we borrowed and never returned. Now Lansbury would have been a great Maggie Thatcher, and come to think of it, Judith Ivey would have knocked our socks off as Sue-Ellen. [However, Lansbury is one tour in Blythe Spirit, about to open at the National in DC.]
In every other regard, Daniel Swee has once again done himself proud as casting director, and even with one error, it’s ok with me if, during a season in which there is no suitable role for Judith Ivey, she accepts a 19 week engagement playing anything for which she has a yen. Right or wrong, a verbal battle between Helen Mirren and Judith Ivey is worth watching.
I’d say the whole play is too. Don’t expect to be shocked, or enlightened, or particularly elevated by The Audience. But Broadway has changed in recent years. Much of the season is now comprised of box office stars signing on for 14-19 weeks, so that it doesn’t interfere with their film or TV series or cabaret careers. It doesn’t much matter what they choose to appear in. I don’t think The River without Hugh Jackman, Three Days of Rain without Julia Roberts, Fish in the Dark without Larry David, all in for “limited engagements”, all highly profitable, as will be The Audience, are going to be revived a lot in 20 years.
But when they are on, they keep many people employed, they’re good for the city’s economy. they keep the tourists coming in droves. Nothing wrong with any of that. I’m just saying ….
The Audience is onstage at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), NYC 10036
Details and tickets