Returning to Broadway after 14 years, Helen Mirren takes on a role that seems to fit like an old tiara: Queen Elizabeth II. Familiarity is one of the chief pleasures of The Audience, a kind of historical pageant by Peter Morgan (who also wrote Mirren’s Oscar-winning lines for the 2006 film The Queen) that arrives on Broadway after an acclaimed run in London two years ago. (Stephen Daldry’s production plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through June 28.)
Morgan’s play unfolds like a live British version of Disney World’s Hall of Presidents: We get a series of short, nonchronological scenes depicting the weekly meetings between the queen and her 13 prime ministers, which occurred just about every Tuesday (except during the Tony Blair premiership, when they switched to Wednesdays, much to the queen’s displeasure). Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) is a stout, pompous fellow who stands like a peacock with his thumbs in his vest pockets and elbows poking out, trying to bully the young monarch into unquestioning submission. Margaret Thatcher (a steely Judith Ivey) is a bully of a different sort, as unyielding in her zeal for transformational reform as her aerosoled bouffant. And Tony Blair (Rufus Wright, who also doubles as current PM David Cameron) is treated mostly as a walking punchline, blithely spouting his belief that the Iraq war is justified and that American and British troops will be greeted as liberators in the streets of the Middle East. His lines are repeated almost verbatim by Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn), seeking to explain Britain’s disastrous intervention in Egypt over the Suez Canal in 1956. In Morgan’s estimation, history really does repeat itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. As Elizabeth comments dryly, “The same ideas come around again, just wearing a different color tie.”
An American audience’s response to all this depends a lot on the depth of their Anglophilia; Morgan’s serviceable patchwork script is steeped in a nostalgia for times and places that is just not our own. (Thatcher, arguably the PM most familiar to us, is confined to a single, lamentably brief scene.) Certainly, there will be less familiarity with some of the memory-jogging details seeded into the dialogue, like the fact that liberal PM Harold Wilson took over in the 1960s with a slim four-seat majority. In fact, Wilson may be the biggest revelation in the show — both as a PM and a character. As played by Richard McCabe with a rough-around-the-edges common touch that underscores real political savvy, Wilson emerges as an unlikely favorite of the queen. Even in their first meeting, they surprise each other — she by pouring her own tea and leaving him to fend for himself, he by requesting a Polaroid selfie for his wife back home. But they come to have a relationship of mutual teasing, and he rightly recognizes her frugality and lack of pomposity — including the Woolworth’s electric heater she that uses in her Scottish retreat, Balmoral Castle. “There’s a good union woman in there somewhere,” he tells her with a mischievous glimmer in his eye.
Mirren, denied the advantages of a cinematic closeup, employs other techniques to broaden her characterization for the theater: She rules the stage with a regal bearing, striking costume and wig changes (well-designed by Bob Crowley and Ivana Primorac, respectively), and a certain magisterial bemusement that makes her many one-liners still seem authentic. Some of her best moments come in imagined encounters with her bicycle-riding younger self (Sadie Sink and Elizabeth Teeter rotate in the role). They rock on their heels with girlish insecurity or peek out through the curtains of Buckingham Palace to spy on the tourists looking up for a glimpse of the royal family. In such moments, The Audience suggests that the girl really can be mother to the woman. And to the queen. Grade: B