London Theater Review: THE AUDIENCE (National Theatre Live)

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by Tony Frankel on June 20, 2013

in Film,Theater-Chicago,Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

MAJESTICAL MIRREN

Although she is a politically neutral monarch, The Queen of England retains the ability to give a weekly audience to a Prime Minister (PM) during his or her term of office, at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on Government Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema film review of "The Audience" at Gielgud Theatre, London / National Theatre Live.matters. Peter Morgan’s new play, The Audience, imagines the meetings between Queen Elizabeth II and her 12 PMs – from Winston Churchill to David Cameron (PM since 2010) – over the period of 60 years. In actuality, the meetings are strictly confidential, and both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses. No minutes are taken and no officials are present, but enough unverified anecdotal material has, shall we say, leaked out and has been meticulously gathered by the playwright in order to create what could have happened during these private affairs.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema film review of "The Audience" at Gielgud Theatre, London / National Theatre Live.Now beaming to a theater near you via National Theatre Live, the production at the Gielgud directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, An Inspector Calls) not only succeeds because of its exquisite dramaturgy, but because we get a true sense that these meetings actually occurred as we see them. (I highly suspect that in another era Morgan would have been carted off to the Tower of London for a quick beheading.) At the heart of these fictional but astoundingly convincing gatherings is Dame Helen Mirren, who won an Academy Award for her role as the Queen in the 2006 biopic movie of that name. The film – which depicts events surrounding Princess Diana’s death, and was also written by Morgan – allowed an all-too-human portraiture of Elizabeth, but the play, for which Mirren won an Olivier, goes even further by crafting the Queen as droll, politically shrewd, psychologically perceptive and sympathetic.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema film review of "The Audience" at Gielgud Theatre, London / National Theatre Live.Mirren’s dry-eyed compassion is perfectly realized at the start, when a blubbering John Major (Paul Ritter) uses his alone-time as a therapy session to lament his battle with House of Commons members. Mirren’s almost deadpan look conveys a multitude of meanings as she gently extends her hanky. This moment also elucidates what we get in return for witnessing theater via video feed: We may not see an entire stage picture, but we are privileged to behold amazing acting as if we sat in the stalls, the seating section closest to the stage. I saw the live showing at the ridiculously comfortable Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, where highly recommended encores continue through September 1 (there are various showings around the country, but the Independent has the most screenings to choose from).

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema film review of "The Audience" at Gielgud Theatre, London / National Theatre Live.The play smartly avoids chronology, which allows for the production to breathe. After Major’s meltdown, the play moves back and forth from Churchill (Edward Fox) to Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker) to Margaret Thatcher (a righteous and steely Haydn Gwynne) and so on. There is more of an arc to the role of Harold Wilson (PM 1964–1970 & 1974–1976); the Queen enjoys him immensely and she has several meetings with him in the play. As such, Richard McCabe, who won an Olivier for his portrayal, is given the opportunity to supply the emotional wallop that makes the piece resonate. Interestingly, Tony Blair does not make an appearance; perhaps a Brit will explain to me if this has something to do with Blair having resigned and therefore undeserving to be immortalized on stage. Even two live corgis make an appearance in the production.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema film review of "The Audience" at Gielgud Theatre, London / National Theatre Live.Most remarkable is that Mirren is inconspicuously transformed on stage by diverse costumes and wigs to create different periods of the Queen’s reign (costumes by the magician of design, Bob Crowley; hair and make-up by Ivana Primorac). In true magisterial thespianism, Mirren is convincing no matter what age she portrays. The piquant but poised Queen also has scenes with her eleven-year-old self, played by Bebe Cave. This device offers fascinating insight into a girl’s transformation from questioning adolescent to royal sovereign.

By avoiding invectives, satirizations, and obvious Mamet-like political irony, this unsentimental, affectionate and funny insider’s view offers a bigger picture. The lives portrayed in The Audience, which seem privileged and powerful from the outside, are relatable because the playwright concentrates on themes of duty and the burden of being in an authoritative position. Your audience with Morgan’s entertaining and fascinating play is requested forthwith.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema film review of "The Audience" at Gielgud Theatre, London / National Theatre Live.photos by Johan Persson

The Audience
Playful Productions
Gielgud Theatre, London
National Theatre Live
for venues and times of other locations,
visit http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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