Mirvish presents a play about Queen Elizabeth II by the creator of Netflix’s The Crown, in Toronto
Writer Peter Morgan has built a career writing biographical scripts about Queen Elizabeth II, including the 2006 film The Queen and the current Netflix series The Crown. Morgan wrote his play The Audience between these two projects.
The title is a reference to the weekly private meeting or “audience” given by the Queen to the sitting British Prime Minister. The Audience details the Queen’s weekly audience with the PM from her ascension to the throne in 1952 through to 2016.
The play recently enjoyed successful runs in London’s West End and on Broadway with Dame Helen Mirren in the role of Queen Elizabeth II. Fiona Reid picks up the rod and sceptre for this new Canadian production and while Reid is a veteran Canadian stage actor, I couldn’t help but feel that this production was a bit like a star vehicle without a star.
I don’t mean to say that Reid’s performance isn’t good, it emphatically is, but I don’t think the script itself is compelling enough to stand on its own merits for a successful show without the need for the star power draw of someone like Helen Mirren in the lead role.
The Audience is not a soap opera centred on the Queen’s personal and public life like The Crown, it’s a memory play told with abrupt jumps back and forth in time throughout her 60-year reign.
Six decades is a huge span of time to cover in one play, the fractured narrative structure throws the audience into scenes without context and we have to scramble to get our bearings. Because of the non-linear nature of the play, I also didn’t get a sense of how the Queen grew with her role over time. I found Reid’s Queen Elizabeth almost invariable in her interactions with the different prime ministers regardless of the different ages of the character.
The characterization of the Queen in The Audience is unlike what we’ve seen of her in many other portrayals, including in Morgan’s other works. Though she’s often seen as rigid, staid and matronly, it’s been said she has a great sense of humour and can be quite funny. This play has a healthy sprinkling of dry British humour; we find the Queen with a larger-than-life personality and cracking one-liners throughout.
Maybe it’s because that persona so incongruent with the public image we know of the Queen, but the characterization felt a bit off to me; this Queen definitely feels more one-note than the versions on screen.
I also found it fascinating how the pacing, presentation and energy are so remarkably different on stage. For example, a large part of the Queen’s audience with Winston Churchill is re-used verbatim, line-by-line in The Crown. Director Christopher Newton gives the scene a faster pacing and lighter tone in The Audience, but I couldn’t help but feel that the version of the same scene in The Crown had more dramatic tension and more weight, which made it more compelling on screen than on stage.
How much you’ll enjoy The Audience will also largely depend on your knowledge of British geopolitical history. I’m a reasonably well-versed politics and history buff so I was able to follow along, but my show-going partner found some of the references arcane, which rendered the play less accessible to her. The play jumps around a variety of topics from the Suez crisis, to the UK’s decision to join the US in invading Iraq, to the Thatcher-era economic reforms.
Speaking of the Iron Lady, the scene with Margaret Thatcher (played by Kate Hennig) is the absolute highlight of the show. Hennig’s Thatcher is a powerhouse and despite her entirely despicable politics, I couldn’t help but be drawn to her character. Thatcher matches wits with the Queen over a perceived slight in the only scene with a real sense of tension. That one short, scintillating scene makes me wish that the relationship between Thatcher and the Queen was the basis for the entire play. Perhaps that’s an idea Morgan can consider for his next script.
- The Audience is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West) through February 26, 2017.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $35.00 to $119.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Royal Alexandra Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of Fiona Reid by Dylan Hewlett