National Theatre Live: The Audience with Helen Mirren

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The Audience is a play written by Peter Morgan and was part of London’s National Theatre’s Live 2013 season where a selected performance was taped live and re-broadcast at selected movie theaters across the globe.  The initial recorded performance at London’s Gielgud Theatre was broadcast live on June 13th of this year and broke all previous National Theatre Live performance records with a combined audience of 100,000+ viewers in North America and the United Kingdom.  Due to the overwhelming success of the initial run, the simultaneous broadcast, and with Dame Helen Mirren having netted an Olivier Award for her role, encore performances of the broadcast were scheduled throughout July for both the United States and England.  I happened to be fortunate enough to catch one of those performances this evening.

The Audience sees Mirren reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth II (her first was for the motion picture, The Queen (2006) where she won the Oscar with Morgan penning the script) as we span sixty years of her reign, seen through the comings and goings of the twelve Prime Ministers (the “dirty dozen”) and the ever-changing English landscape.  The stories of the United Kingdom, and ultimately the Queen herself, are told through the lens of the Queen’s Tuesday night meetings with her Prime Minister where she is briefed of the news of her kingdom.

The meetings vary in tone and style from one Prime Minister to another, each characteristic of their specific decade and contrast greatly with the stoic presence of the Queen who stays seemingly unmoved throughout.  Her demeanor, while to some may appear cold or disconnected, is as Morgan muses, part of the mask she must wear as part of the duty of servitude to her kingdom.

However, Morgan’s examination of the Queen is very human and smartly illustrated by having two Queens, a younger and older that co-exist throughout the performance.  The young Elizabeth appears at first an unchanging character that helps the aging Queen navigate the varying decades, highlighting the duality of her existence, her different public and private masks.  She is a wide-eyed youth, still fascinated with the world and the promises within it, but more importantly, in no hurry to adopt the strain of the crown soon to be forced upon her.  She shuns the cold, empty halls of Buckingham Palace and longs to be treated as an equal to her peers, playing as children do, not set apart to be revered and bowed to.  However, we soon see the trouble hang upon her face as she weighs the sacrifices that will inevitably come with the title, a sentence that creeps ever-closer and merges with the stoic, aging Queen which forges quietly ahead, central to a sometimes tumultuous, even violent kingdom.  It is within that struggle and that co-existence that the Queen becomes human, and within the hands of a master actor, Dame Helen Mirren, a vision to behold.

Having seen The Queen back in 2006, it was easily apparent Mirren was equipped with the talent necessary to play this role and to do it with the subtlety required to show Queen Elizabeth II as a strong, but nuanced character.  But, it is within this superior script that Mirren elevates her performance to a level of special importance, one worthy of greatly moving an audience by chipping away at what appears to be an immovable figure central to the English psyche to reveal that duality within.  She does so with an exacting wit and enduring strength in a performance that can only be described by this viewer as superb.

However, she does not carry the show alone.  Supported by a costume department that deserves props in their own right in preserving the era for each incarnation of Queen Elizabeth II flawlessly, and with a supporting cast that shines including Haydn Gwynne as Margaret Thatcher and a sublime Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson, the performance is one of special importance.

If you do get the opportunity to check the performance out at one of the varying encore presentations, I highly recommend it if you are a fan of The National Theatre Live performances, or of good theatre in general.  I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see this series locally and will continue to attend these National Theatre Live performances as long as they keep making them available to the U.S. and continue to provide us with excellent theatre.