Over the past few years, the National Theatre in London has broadcasted some of their major productions to cinemas across the world, giving audiences a chance to experience some of the finest British actors and play. The venture has turned out to be a massive success, and this month, National Theatre Live brings Australian audiences the major theatrical event of the year, the return of Helen Mirren to her Oscar-winning role as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s ‘The Audience’.
Gliding back and forth throughout the Queen’s reign, ‘The Audience’ examines her relationship with the many Prime Ministers to take office during her time. Every Tuesday evening, the Prime Minister has a private audience with the monarch to discuss matters of state. This is a private meeting, with no minutes taken, and subject to strict secrecy. Morgan takes a number of PMs at major points in both theirs and the Queen’s history and imagines these private moments, opening up perspectives on both the PMs and the Queen herself, the one constant in a country in the throes of decades of constitutional change.
As well as a return to the character for Mirren, it also makes a return for Peter Morgan, who wrote ‘The Queen’ (2006). In many ways, this is an even more impressive piece of work, divorced of the drama of the death of Diana and instead offering a more meditative portrait of Her Majesty, ordinary moments from ordinary days, imagined moments of candid intimacy with her Prime Ministers. We saw a glimpse of these audiences as the bookends of ‘The Queen’ with Tony Blair, and in this instance, Morgan doesn’t re-tread the same ground as the film. Those covered include Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker), Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn), Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne), Winston Churchill (Edward Fox) and current PM David Cameron (Rufus Wright). Morgan’s writing is razor-sharp and incredibly intelligent, balancing gorgeous glimpses of intimacy and humour with dramatic political tension and private moments of personal turmoil. Not only does ‘The Audience’ further humanise the Queen herself, but adds layers of detail to the political leaders. This is helped immensely by Stephen Daldry’s superb direction, which keeps the moments contained to the two yellow armchairs in the audience room, allowing the writing and the performances to be the focus rather than broader theatricality. As a singular experience, ‘The Audience’ is a far more focused piece of work than ‘The Queen’, which was carried mostly by the work of Morgan, Mirren and Michael Sheen. Here, the structure is stronger, and we don’t have to contend with too many major plot points, and Daldry seems more at ease with the material than Stephen Frears did. Of course, theatre and film are very different mediums, but the culminating effect of ‘The Audience’ feels like a more satisfying one.
Inevitably, the major drawcard is Mirren’s return to the role, one that has become an iconic benchmark in representations of the Queen. Here, she plays Her Majesty across many decades, from a young Elizabeth in her 20s coming to grips with a position she doesn’t feel prepared for, to the institution she is today. Mirren has the opportunity to inject even more humanity and humour into the character, and her blinding skill as a performer makes for a powerhouse performance, especially combined with the dynamic reality of theatre. The supporting cast is also excellent, especially those lesser known Prime Ministers. The real highlight is Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson, one PM who makes a special personal connection with the Queen, identifying with her as working-class to the bone. McCabe delivers the perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, delivering the final emotional blow of the play. It's proof of how excellent a performance it is by how well he holds his own against Mirren, and how much the screen sparkles when they are together.
Initially, it takes some time getting used to the format of theatre filmed for the big screen, with your brain having to adapt to the difference of performance in theatre and film. However, this transition comes much easier with ‘The Audience’ than with many other National Theatre Live broadcasts, thanks to the intimacy of the direction and performances, and the modest size of the Gielgud Theatre. The editing and framing is terrific, never missing a moment and giving the play an extra rhythmic dynamism. The sound recording is also excellent, all the dialogue crisp and clear. There’s also a treat in the interval, a lively interview with Peter Morgan where he discusses the experience of writing a play around events we have no record of, as well as a fascinating short on the costumes designed for the play and their reference to the Queen’s actual wardrobe.
Mirren has the opportunity to inject even more humanity and humour into the character, and her blinding skill as a performer makes for a powerhouse performance.
While it might seem like a strange prospect, the National Theatre Live initiative is far more fulfilling an experience than you’d expect, and especially when giving us such an exciting opportunity to see a true theatrical event, the likes of which we in Australia will never be able to enjoy in a theatre for ourselves. ‘The Audience’ is a terrific achievement, a true credit to the talents of everyone involved. By placing personal relationships and character before politics, it allows us to step behind closed doors and imagine the people within the institutions. It only plays for a few days, so don’t miss your chance to see this great piece of British theatre in the last place you might expect to see it.