Assuming their schedules jibe, Queen Elizabeth II and her prime minister meet once a week to bring the queen up to speed on matters affecting the realm she nominally rules. Inasmuch as Elizabeth ascended to the throne 64 years ago, that’s a great many meetings—or audiences, to use the royal terminology. Quite a few ministers too: when Peter Morgan‘s The Audience premiered, in 2013, a dozen PMs—11 men and one woman—had shared the little ritual with her majesty, starting with Winston Churchill and reaching up through David Cameron. The lone woman, of course, was Margaret Thatcher.
Morgan’s play constructs a portrait of Elizabeth by imagining scenes from the audiences and snipping them together—a sort of biography as highlights reel. We see her as a young woman, behaving coltishly with Churchill, who gives her a short course on protocol (the minister stands, the queen declares her unconditional support, and 20 minutes is the limit, since “anything can be settled” in that span of time). Thatcher and Cameron troop through, along with Anthony Eden, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, an uncouth Harold Wilson, and a very nervous John Major. Eden is supercilious as he tries to finesse his government’s behind-the-scenes role in triggering the Suez crisis of 1956. Thatcher is livid, accusing Elizabeth of being a closet Labour sympathizer out to undermine her Tory policies. Wilson shows up to his first audience with a Polaroid camera, like a tourist.
Morgan makes a quiet political point by having Blair use the same argument for sending troops to Iraq that Eden uses for sending them to Egypt. He quietly confirms Thatcher’s view of Elizabeth’s personal politics by emphasizing her affection for Wilson. The problem of Princess Diana is weathered without undue fuss; similarly, the question of the need for any monarchy at all seems to be decided in monarchy’s favor. Morgan’s Elizabeth reserves her highest dudgeon for a move to get her to part with her yacht and her greatest passion for her belief that she’s not merely crowned but consecrated to her office.
She’s astute, conscientious, impressively disciplined yet capable of warmth—and, in this staging directed by Nick Bowling, also a tad dull. Which comes as a surprise, considering that she’s played by the usually marvelous Janet Ulrich Brooks, who’s merely very good here. The problem, I think, is that Brooks doesn’t make enough room for subversion. Her Elizabeth is sympathetic even in her foibles. Things would be more interesting if her tenacity were allowed to slide over into real petulance now and then, her sense of duty into blue-blooded arrogance. Meanwhile, Matt DeCaro shambles beautifully through as Churchill, Wilson, and Blair, engaging even when his wig rebels. v