Monday, March 16, 2015

Helen Mirren reigns in The Audience

It’s wonderful to see Helen Mirren once again assume the role of Queen Elizabeth II.  I just wish she was doing so in a vehicle with more depth than Peter Morgan’s entertaining but somewhat superficial play The Audience, now on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through June 28.

     As she was in Morgan’s movie “The Queen,” Mirren is spot-on in depicting Britain’s long-serving monarch. She won an Oscar for that part and well could win a Tony for this one. Under the direction of Stephen Daltry, Mirren portrays Elizabeth from 1951 to the present, often decades apart from one scene to the next, under the guise of imagined meetings with each of her prime ministers — “the dirty dozen,” as she says.  They come to Buckingham Palace once a week to update her on matters of “cabinet, Parliament, and foreign affairs,” as Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) explains in his first sessions with her as a young woman readying to assume the throne following her father’s death.

   Bob Crowley’s minimalist design is effective for focusing the attention of the conversations.  His costumes are impressive for the way they portray Elizabeth’s frumpy dignity, yet can be rapidly changed, often onstage, to present an Elizabeth decades earlier or later.

     Elizabeth is the thread that keeps the show together, although it can still feel more like a series of sketches strung together than an actual play.  I will say the scenes do blend well one into the other, rather like movie fade ins and fade outs.

     The elected officials often share elements of their pasts and Elizabeth reveals a dry wit in many of her responses, at times revealing her own feelings about her life’s role, which each time sounded contrived to me.  I can’t imagine the real queen opening up to her prime ministers, but I guess it’s necessary for dramatic purposes. Politics are discussed, but largely in a modern English history lite way.

     Elizabeth does display some spunk, especially in her first PM meeting, with Churchill.  When he proposes delaying her coronation by 16 months, she is quick to discern the reason — he hopes to stay in office longer.

     “I may be young and sheltered, but I am not a fool,” she says.  “Prime Minister, I feel you’re not taking me seriously.”

     Her anger is even stronger when John Major (Dylan Baker), prime minster from 1990 to 1997, suggests the Royal Family has an image problem and because the economy is so weak could bolster its standing with the public by paying income tax.  The queen is appalled.

     “That would make us like everyone else,” she says indignantly.  “We’re not like everyone else. … This family has given every minute of every day to the country.”

     She tells him her role as queen was “a consecration in God’s house.”

     She never forgets who she is, although years later she wonders about the importance of showing up for ribbon cuttings and being “a postage stamp with a pulse.”

     After meeting with Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan), who was prime minister from 2007 to 2010, she reflects on the down side of “sticking around” for so long and hearing “the same ideas and the same people coming around again and again, just wearing a different color tie.”      

     Most of what I liked was in the first act.  By the second, the show began to drag for me, especially in the scene with Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey, left in photo). The concept of conversations with rotating prime ministers had begun to wear thin and, at two hours and 20 minutes, the show was too long.

     One feature I did consistently like was the appearance of her younger self, played the night I was there by Sadie Sink, who presents the child Elizabeth’s feeling of confusion upon her father’s sudden assent to the throne and her dislike for Buckingham Place, which she likens to living in a museum with no neighbors.  At times she and the adult Elizabeth talk and I always liked that.

    The Audience comes to Broadway following a record-breaking run at London's Gielgud Theatre in 2013 for which Mirren won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Play.  Her performance here, and that of all of her cast members, is award-worthy.  The play may be a bit weak, but the production still provides a good evening of theatre. 

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