Friday, August 23, 2013

An Audience with Helen Mirren

Along with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the National Theatre in London has been one of the more prominent performing arts institutions to embrace and exploit the "live" broadcasting of its shows to cinemas internationally. Indeed, until yesterday my first and only experience of this now common feature of the local multiplex line-up was the National's broadcast of its production of Phèdre, back in 2009. That production starred Helen Mirren, and I wrote about it here. And so it was only fitting, I suppose, that yesterday evening, for my second go-round with such performance technology, I should have chosen another National star vehicle for Dame Helen.

In fact, yesterday's screening of Peter Morgan's The Audience (which Richard and I failed to take in on our most recent trip to London, as I mention here) was an "encore presentation" of the live broadcast that took place on June 13, the National having discovered how, via the magic of digital video, to expand its theatre audiences (and maximize its profits) infinitely. To alter slightly the title of a recent performance studies anthology, Perform, Record, Repeat. In this case, the maxim applies equally to the play's main character, with Mirren once again stepping into the sensible shoes of Elizabeth II, a role she first essayed (to award-winning effect) in the 2006 film The Queen, also written by Morgan. Both properties are essentially imaginative, behind-the-scenes reflections on the relationship between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street. However, whereas the film focused on the Queen's often testy relationship with a single Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death, the play ranges over 60 years, dramatizing what might have been said during the monarch's weekly Tuesday audiences with the 12 PMs who have served under her since she first acceded to the throne.

It's actually a rather thin conceit on which to hang a whole play. Mercifully Morgan and director Stephen Daldry prevent the evening from simply devolving into a series of clever vignettes through a number of dramaturgical innovations. First, the play does not unspool chronologically. Following an opening address to the theatre audience from the Queen's all-seeing equerry (a wonderfully wide-eyed--and pursed-lipped--Geoffrey Beevers) that sets the stage (down to the colour of the upholstery) for what we are about to see, the lights come up on the Queen and John Major (Paul Ritter). It's the mid-1990s and the one PM among the 12 who least wanted the job is feeling threatened from all sides, including within his own party; the Queen, who makes a point of reminding Major that he, unlike her, chose both his current profession and to run for its top office, advises him to quell the dissenters by calling for a leadership vote. Major will return later in the play, this time advising the Queen on concessions to public opinion during the height of the monarchy's unpopularity surrounding the marital discord between Charles and Diana. But for the time being we are next transported back in time, to the Queen's initial meeting with her very first PM, Winston Churchill (Edward Fox, suitably avuncular and completely unrecognizable). Among other things, this allows us to marvel at the first of several instances of stage magic during which Mirren undergoes several quick costume changes and be-/de-wiggings that either make her appear more youthful or age her, as needed. And, indeed, the shifting silhouette, gait and posture of her Elizabeth are among the many outward signs that keep us invested in a performance that, while ranging emotionally, is quite physically static.

A lot of the bigger emotions come in scenes between the Queen and her younger avatar, the Princess Elizabeth (a delightfully impetuous Nell Williams). Together, these interludes constitute the second formal innovation of the play. Not only do they help break up the different PM interviews; they also collectively show us how much of her personal self the Queen has had to give up, or hide away, in order to remain, as she puts it at the end of the play, invisible in the most visible public role in the world.

Morgan also finds the right mix of the personal and the political in his dramatic conjecturing about what the Queen and her successive PMs might have talked about. And the mix goes both ways. By that I mean, the Queen is allowed to quiz Sir Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) about the UK's secret directive to support, along with France, an invasion by Israel of Egypt over the Suez Canal, and also to challenge Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne, wonderfully imperious, and with the Iron Lady's trademark diction) over her failure to support sanctions against apartheid South Africa. At the same time, she lends a sympathetic ear to Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker) when he confesses he is suffering from depression, just as she expresses genuine distress when Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe, in a superb performance that combines elements of comic burlesque and tragic depth) tells her he plans to resign because his formerly photographic memory is showing tell-tale signs of Alzheimer's. Wilson, the Labour PM from Huddersfield, appears in three scenes with the Queen, which track a relationship that, over 12 years and two stints at No. 10, moved from mutual suspicion and antipathy to genuine respect and, Morgan suggests, warm friendship.

It is here, and elsewhere, in even briefer but no less meaningful exchanges between the sovereign and other of her first ministers, that Morgan gives us a deeper insight into the uncanny, necessarily doubled nature of such audiences--in which both parties must decide whether and how to communicate what they mean without actually saying anything.

In the theatre, of course, we call that acting.


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