Each one enters differently. Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) is suddenly just there, his hat and coat removed for him as if he were Don Corleone, with a cigar in mouth to complete the image. John Major (Dylan Baker) putters in, hangdog, less the leader of his country and more the patient embarrassed to have asked his therapist for an emergency session. We see David Cameron’s (Rufus Wright) teeth before anything else, which seem to be pulling the rest of his body into the room, and he remains unable to relinquish for a second even a shred of the politician’s insincerity. And the alleged favorite, Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), is like the bumbling tourist who has lost his group, and asks (under the pretense of a request from his wife) for a picture, only afterwards confessing, “The picture’s for me, Ma’am. This is the proudest moment of my life.”
Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) has been queen to twelve British prime ministers, and (with one notable exception) has held regular Tuesday meetings with them since her succession in 1952. These meetings provide the setting for Peter Morgan’s The Audience, an ingenious, delicious bit of popcorn history currently running at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre. Elizabeth, of course, occupies a very particular, very controlled world, one in which an equerry (Geoffrey Beevers) can refer to the color “burgundy” with a degree of vitriol usually reserved for unrepentant racists. Indeed, the Private Audience Room alone is filled with items and customs and gestures, the smallest and least significant of which are still centuries old and rich with symbolic import. It is this context in which I found myself gasping when Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan) realized he was seated while the Queen was standing.
Of course, Ms. Mirren has played Elizabeth before, but what makes her even more impressive this time around is that she has not become complacent in the part; she has not given in to the temptation to reveal when the better choice is always to obscure. Her performance, like the Queen’s, does not betray a single crack, and emotions are never strong enough to warrant more than the faintest twitch around the mouth or brow. Watching her is like watching a painting.
Granted, Mr. Morgan’s script occasionally veers into the territory of the cloying Hollywood biopic. We don’t need to hear Elizabeth say, “Yes, I am a queen. But I am also a woman,” and we don’t need the occasional conversations she has in flashback with her younger self. The fact is that these exchanges between actual and symbolic heads of state are fascinating enough on their own, and Mr. Morgan is an expert at establishing intimacy between his audience and his subjects. When Elizabeth confesses that both she and her husband hate Buckingham Palace, Wilson squeals, “What a scoop!” and I couldn’t help feeling the same.
But The Audience is not only an entertaining take on British history. It is also an exquisite comedy of manners. When Brown tells Elizabeth that all public figures are in “the survival business, and God knows, if anyone has pulled off an inexplicable survival against the odds it’s you,” she replies in the same, even tone she might use to request a cube of sugar, “I think that started life as a compliment but ended up somewhere else.” Then, there is her relationship with Blair: when he breaks with tradition by moving the meetings to Wednesdays, she expresses “surprise.” When he leaves office in disgrace, she is “comforted” in the hope they might be moved back to Tuesdays.
In these dry, smiling euphemisms, she is—as Cameron later notes—saying nothing and making her position perfectly clear. Is there any higher usage of British English than this brand of cutting subtlety? And is there any better description of a woman who, more than any other person on the planet, is so conspicuously seen and hidden?