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Helen Mirren In “The Audience” At Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Wednesday, March 18th, 2015, Reviewed


The Labour Minister and Prime Minister of Swingin’ 60s UK, Harold Wilson, set the place for the decline and fall of the Sovereign Isle not as a World Power, that would be Anthony Eden, but a first world country. By the time he was replaced by Jimmy Callaghan in the 1970s, the country had indeed postponed Paradise. Wilson left office for the second time in 1976 and at the time punk was on the bubble where teenagers were warned they might NEVER have a job in their lives.

In “The Audience” -the play being performed at the Schoenfeld through June 23rd, Peter Morgan positions WIlson as a salt of the earth, crusty  working class lad who forges a friendship with Queen Elizabeth II, performed by Dame Helen Mirren in a tour de force by the 69 year old actress, during their weekly audiences at Buckingham Palaces.This WIlson has nothing to do with reality, it is pleasant but fictional, he is sweet and in his relationship with the Queen (coronation in 1952 and still there) there is a heart beating and a promise of an insight, and there is an insight, which has nothing to do with what happened. It promises something it can’t provide.

The Audiences is where the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (12 of them so far during her current reign) meets with the Queen in Buckingham Palace, to keep her abreast of the state of the country -essentially, politics through a glass darkly). The Queen has no power at all, barely even to make suggestions, but, as PM David Cameron (Rufus Wright) put it: “All of your PMs would agree; you have a way of saying nothing, yet making your view perfectly clear,” All well and good, but it doesn’t work as history, or as an insight into politics, Margaret Thatcher’s aggressive rudeness to the Queen might have been true, it might have been her reaction to the Queen’s disgust as Thatcher belittled the 59 countries in the Commonwealth, by refusing sanctions against the South African apartheid Government, nut only might. Judith Ivey’s version of Thatcher has much more to do with Morgan’s Labour leanings than anything in history for sure;  if Thatcher had been the hell on wheels towards the Queen depicted here, we’d have known about it. As the notes that accompanied the Playbill, Thatcher always showed a quarter of an hour early for her audiences.

Also, where is anything close to proof that the Queen opposed, or even corrected, Prime Minister Anthony Eden during the Suez Canal crises (Egyptian President Nasser sequestered the Suez Canal in 1956, the US refused to back the UK when the UK, along with Israeli and French forces, went to take it back). Maybe, maybe Liz and Tony made love on one of the upholstered chair. Who knows?

This speculative fiction is interesting without being enlightening about either the Queen or the Prime Ministers. And to make matters worse, “The Audience” is a lousy play. Oh, it is a fun two hours, for sure, it is just a bad play. It has no arc, it has no crest, it spins its wheels for two hours and then ends. It makes you wonder what a true master playwright like Tom Stoppard might have done with the concept. The audiences are not told in chronological order and Mirren is all bravado and actress chops as she ages from a 25 year old neophyte being schooled by Winston Churchill to an 86 year old elderly Queen nodding off to David Cameron explaining Greece’s imminent bankruptcy. You could certainly imagine a Greek chorus of PMs on stage at the same time, while the Queen plays ideological tennis. Certainly the concept of inner child Liz Rex (Elizabeth Teeter at the show I caught) would have been vastly more satisfying.

Given the price of the ticket, I would have hoped for more. Morgan’s screenplay for Mirren’s earlier performance as “the Queen” also with Mirren, found the Queen in crises after the death Of Princess Diana. That was serious, this is a parlor game, an impression of history based upon few facts and many feelings with no internal logic and less insight.

But what it has is one of the great actors of her generation centerstage for two hours, bringing to life a difficult, opaque, and, frankly, doubtful, Queen.  Queen Elizabeth, like the rest of the House Of Windsor, is an inbred half wit with a very limited vision of the world and a life of incredible luxury. Much hated by huge swathes of the population, many of whom, certainly in the 1970s, lived in hopeless poverty and then, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, had the rug pulled out from under them, while the Queen sailed round the world on her ship.

I am not suggesting that there is any reason at all for this to be portrayed in “The Audience”. I am happy to go see a fictional history with one of the greats, Helen Mirren. I am just not willing to call it a great experience.

Grade: B

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