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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though the dowdy outfits and hairdos and very proper demeanor are in place, this Queen brings considerable intelligence, compassion, as well as a dry sense of humor, to the long-serving Royal. Of course it's Helen Mirren's brilliant portrayal of Elizabeth II from age twenty-five to her eighties makes you hail this monarch and all the Prime Ministers with whom she has weekly briefing meetings or audiences. That pleasure is greatly enriched by Stephen Daldry's marvelously grand and theatrical production.
As two-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill explains to Elizabeth at the beginning of her reign, these audiences mean that the Prime Minister talks, and the Queen listens. She can ask an occasional question but in keeping with England's Constitutional Monarchy, she must always agree. Fortunately, Morgan's script allows Mirren (who has been a Dame of the British Empire since 2003) to display a curious mind, and to be warm and caring as well as very much the Royal.
With the National Theatre production's director, several of the original actors and the entire design team on board for the Broadway production, it's easy to agree with Lizzie Loveridge's thumbs up London review. Mirren is magnificent as ever. Bob Crowley's design has brought all the British Empire's splendor to the Schoenfeld Theatre — Buckingham Palace's columned Private Audience Room backed by by seemingly endless trompe l'oeil hallways . . .the ceremonial splendor of her coronation. . . her beloved Scottish retreat for a light-hearted, fun visit by Harold Wilson.
Several of the Brits besides Mirren are on hand to reprise their roles. Rufus Wright recreates his double role of Tony Blair and the current PM, David Cameron. Richard McCabe is back as Harold Wilson, the social reformer who turns out to be Elizabeth's favorite. He makes three very welcome and nuanced appearances. Reappearing more briefly is Michael Elwyn as Anthony Eden who must face the Queen's question about his controversial handling of the Suez Canal.
A returning cast member who's not a Prime Minister but who adds enormously to the atmosphere and authenticity is Geoffrey Beevers. As the Equerry he informatively sets the scene for each meeting. In introducing her beloved country home he describes its comfortable furnishings and also brings out the Queen's thriftier side. As he tells it, the warmth from a big fireplace is supplemented with an electric heater from Woolworths.
The pond crossing actors are ably supported by the largely new American cast. This is evident in the Queen's first Audience with her ninth Prime Minister John Major now played by Dylan Baker. This busy stage and screen actor fully captures the man's amusing awareness of his atypical background and personality for the Prime Minister's role (His father was a trapeze artist, his educational achievements were undistinguished, and he lacks the aggressive personality of more visible a PMs).
To assist New York theater goers not up on notable events associated with each Prime Minister there's a helpful insert in the program; it lists the dates they served and highlights of their tenures. The Ministers are listed in order of their terms of service, not as they appear on stage. This non-linear story telling may sound confusing. Actually it adds to the piquancy of the play and Mirren's amazing back and forth between various periods in her life through body language and voice as well as the costume and wig changes.
The non-linear approach begins with the first Audience set in 1995. The Minister is John Major and Elizabeth is in her 60s. The action then flashes back to Elizabeth as a 25-year-old fledgling Queen and her audience with Winston Churchill (an imposing Dakin Matthews). Besides instructing her on what's expected of her at these weekly briefings, Churchill points out the impracticality of her wish to take on her beloved husband's surname of Mountbatten. As he puts it, his surname should really be Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderberg-Glucksberg, clearly not appropriate for the royal consort of a country that only a decade earlier was at war with Germany.
The meetings with the various PMs are interspersed with the Queen's inner life animated by a younger version of herself (Sadie Sink, the Young Elizabeth at the performance I saw, alternates the role with Elizabeth Teeter). These imaginary interactions add nuance to to story, giving us a glimpse of the girl who must leave "normal" home with neighbors when her father becomes king, and adapt to the reality of her own future as the next in line to the throne.
The between scenes business involving Mirren's change of appearance and persona is handled with impressive finesse, with wigs and dresses several times changed right on stage, with several equerries serving as combination screen and dressers. A scene in which she appears in tailored blue suit just after posing for the famous photographer Cecil Beaton in a full skirted white gown and crown is breathtaking.
The only female Prime Minister Elizabeth meets is the ultra conservative Margaret Thatcher. Casting Judith Ivey, an actress whose work I've always admired, in this role struck me as this production's one misstep. Ivey's Thatcher turns her Audience with the Queen (the 100th in her 7 years in office) into a confrontation that somehow seems out of synch with the play's overall feeling. Thatcher's accusing the Queen of being behind a newspaper story calling her policies "socially divisive" does support the famous Iron Lady nickname. Yet the meeting somehow isn't as real as the play's other interchanges. In fairness to Ivey, the problem may be at least partly due to the way this woman-to-woman meeting is scripted.
The Audience is not a thematically powerful play, with a bang-up dramatic core like the Frears film. The viewer's pleasure derives more from its pageantry than its plot. However, it's the that pageantry, Mirren's latest star turn as an ordinary woman living within its elegant boundaries, does make for bright and highly entertaining theater.
If I had to pick my favorite Mirren moments I'd be hard pressed to choose between her nodding off in the midst of young Prime Minister Cameron's briefing and her cheery appearance at her country estate. However, it's at Balmoral that even Mirren is almost upstaged by her Corgis. That brings me to a final bravo for William Berloni, New York's busiest trainer of four-footed thespians. Those Corgis are indeed scene stealers so it's a good thing the Queen is so fond of them.
For a link to Lizzie Loveridge's review go here and for a You tube lip from that production go here