There are three styles of acting on display in The Audience, a delightful play which charts Queen Elizabeth’s meetings with her Prime Ministers from Churchill to the present. One is epitomized by Helen Mirren, who embodies regality more than she plays an actual character, and it totally works. One is displayed by the British members of the cast, whose familiarity with both the history of their characters and the social class they embody (and in Britain, it’s all about what social class you belong or aspire to) comes across as natural and precise; and that totally works as well. And one is attempted by the American actors, who—in gamely adopting accents which either vanish now and then or become utterly controlling—wind up orphaning their characters—which doesn’t work at all.
For instance: Dylan Baker actually begins the play very well. His accent is impeccable, which makes him initially unrecognizable as John Major, but the longer he speaks, the more he starts sounding like Dylan Baker, and all the good things he did in the beginning are forgotten. And I would have liked to see Judith Ivey spend less time working on Margaret Thatcher’s accent and more time working on Queen Elizabeth’s last nerve. Her one scene with Mirren (the only scene in which the character of Elizabeth is in any way cowed or intimidated) seemed to be a battle between Ivey and the vowels she was speaking, rather than the actress she was speaking them to.
Thankfully they are not the entire show. That burden falls—with lightness and sincerity—on Helen Mirren’s shoulders. She is the reason to see this play, and while nothing earth-shattering happens in the course of two hours except 60 years of British history, you do not doubt for a second that you are in the presence of royalty, both theatrical and hereditary.
Along with the Prime Ministers scenes, there are flashbacks to the young Elizabeth with her Scottish nanny, and a series of flash-forward-backs between the Queen and her younger self, where the older woman instructs the younger one like some kind of Future Nanny. It’s an effect that you’d think wouldn’t work at all, except that it does. Thanks to these scenes, we get just enough moments of Elizabeth, when she was Lilibet, to see the sheltered child in Mirren’s performance. This comes out in a couple of tense moments where Elizabeth’s reserve completely cracks, moments that are actually a little embarrassing because what is coming out of this proper woman is the volcanic wail of a child who has been bred from an early age to never display a feeling in public. And again: it shouldn’t work, but it does. (Sort of like the monarchy itself, when you come right down to it.)
And of course what’s really interesting about all this (and deserves to be remarked upon) is that the young Queen is presented as someone who has had no male role models, and the kind of female role models which lead an audience to treat her like a self-made woman. It’s a subtle touch—she has no scenes with her father; she only obeys her nanny; and while all her Prime Ministers save one are male, only one of them is portrayed as a superior (Churchill). And even then she has her own ideas about what she should be doing.
Of all the other Prime Ministers, you can pretty much figure out where the moderns stand in Elizabeth’s estimation by whether or not they like Tony Blair. (It appears that she didn’t.) In the published British script, Blair never appears, but he shows up here on our shores in a brief scene that both pays homage to our knowledge of the Iraq War, and makes the comparison between that colossal misadventure and the Suez Crisis under Anthony Eden even more (as Dogberry would say) odorous.
Of all the other PM’s, only one is presented as what we would call a friend, but which the British would probably define as a cross-class equal-terms working companion, to the Queen. That would be Richard McCabe's Harold Wilson, who was PM back in the Sixties—a man with whom those of my generation will be familiar primarily thanks to a shout-out in the Beatles song “Taxman.” Wilson has the best scenes with Elizabeth and is the most entertaining character besides her because he’s the least posh. In fact, their scenes together play like a romantic comedy where the only man the upper-crust dame can be herself with is the lower-class bloke without any airs. And it's totally charming, and even gets a sweet and touching moment at the end.
On the technical side, there are some stunningly quick costume and wig changes in this play, and by quick I mean in the space of less than fifteen seconds. The effect is dazzling. With each change, Mirren does something to her face, softening it for youth and hardening it for age. And everything screams high class, from a Cecil Beaton photo shoot to the theatre seat prices. (To paraphrase Lennon, the only people clapping their hands are in the rear mezzanine; the rest are all rattling their jewelry.)
Plus there are Corgis—awwwww-inspiring Pembroke Welsh Corgis.