One of the defining features of theatre has always been the immediacy of the medium. Neither film nor television enables an audience to watch actors as they perform, live on stage, night after night. Of course, there are downsides to theatre as well, and the biggest one has always been that most people are not able to see it. Even putting aside the high cost of tickets, which frequently sell out well in advance, there is the problem of timing and location—if you can’t make it to Broadway or the West End to see the original productions with the original cast, you will never have a chance to see that performance exactly that way ever again. In the case of smaller productions or flops, you might never get another chance to see it anywhere, period.
Faced with this dilemma, the London-based Royal National Theatre has found an interesting solution: capitalizing on the recent popularity of “cinecasts,” they have begun filming plays for broadcast in a different theater. The most recent play broadcast onto the big screen has also been their most successful—playwright Peter Morgan’s “The Audience” has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people around the globe since June, and is still receiving encore broadcasts in America and Australia as of today. Cleveland’s own Cedar Lee Theatre (2163 Lee Road) has had to add a third showing this week due to popular demand.
I had been to one previous National Theatre Live broadcast at the Cedar Lee, which had been rather sparsely attended. But “The Audience” was shown in a much larger screening room, with nearly all of the seats filled. This was presumably due to the much greater star power attached to this play, as Helen Mirren was reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth II, a role that in the 2006 film, “The Queen”, saw her win an Academy Award, a SAG award, and numerous other tokens of critical acclaim. The play’s author, Peter Morgan, was also the screenwriter for that film, so the reuniting of actor, writer, and subject matter was bound to drawn critical and popular interest.
The play itself revolves around a notoriously secretive aspect of the unwritten British constitution—the weekly “audience” wherein the reigning monarch meets with the current prime minister to discuss current political topics and other national affairs. These meetings are unrecorded and top secret. Only the Queen and the prime ministers themselves know what was discussed in them, which makes it a rather imposing topic to write a play about. The Queen has had these meetings with twelve different men (and one woman) over the past 60 years, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron, which gave Peter Morgan a wide range of eras and topics to examine throughout the play’s two-and-a-half hours. Although no one knows exactly what was said during these meetings, Morgan connects the dots between the current events of the time and the personalities of the people involved to imagine the conversations that may have occurred, serious and silly, congenial and confrontational.
The events of the play are not chronological; indeed, jumps of decades are often made between one scene and another, and the hair and costume changes that enable Helen Mirren to resemble the Queen at any age between her twenties and her eighties are very impressive. It is the effect of these rapid costume changes that is probably most lost to those of us who did not see the play on stage. Of course, acting is about more than wigs and dresses, and Mirren’s voice, posture, and entire demeanor shift dramatically as the play seamlessly flits back and forth between decades.
If the play has any weaknesses, it is that it is perhaps overambitious. The sheer range of eras, people, and politics encompassed mean that very little can be dealt with in close detail. Some of the prime ministers in particular seem to be reduced to either caricatures or throwaway jokes, though considering many of them are scarcely remembered even in their native Britain, this may ultimately be to audience’s benefit. The device of having a young Elizabeth occasionally emerge from flashbacks to converse with her older self is also handled somewhat clumsily. By and large though, the play is written and directly effectively, and it is also extremely well-acted throughout. Helen Mirren deserves special praise, of course, but Richard McCabe was also particularly delightful and convincing as Harold Wilson (who, if the play is to be believed, was the Queen’s personal favorite amongst all the prime ministers she has dealt with). If the play is not an especially deep analysis of either Queen Elizabeth herself, the prime ministers themselves, or the entire nature of constitutional monarchy as a form of government, it is at least engaging, well-staged, well-written, and outstandingly acted.
“The Audience” is playing at the Cedar Lee Theatre at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 17. Ticketing information can be found at Cedar Lee’s website.