If there’s a criticism about William Shakespeare that occasionally hits its mark, it’s that he was a House of Tudor propagandist. And yet, nothing Shakespeare penned in the first Elizabethan age was quite as flattering toward the monarch of his day as the gooey oeuvre British writer Peter Morgan has assembled about the head of the House of Windsor over the past decade or so of our Elizabethan age.
The Audience – Morgan’s 2013 play now getting a Toronto premiere starring Fiona Reid as Queen Elizabeth II – puts Her Majesty on the stage for two acts, dramatizing her private, weekly conversations with “her prime ministers” – prime ministers of Britain, of course.
Her Majesty is depicted as either a precocious and sharp young queen, or a wise and funny old queen. She knows Suez and Iraq are bad ideas, but stoically supports these mistakes, as she must. The worst impression we get of the Queen is in middle-age, testy about the problems between her son and Princess Diana – and even then, Morgan has given her a cold in that scene to explain her uncustomary curtness away. He’s not written a comedy or drama or even history, but a hagiography.
Morgan, of course, began his lucrative, leech-like career as chronicler of Her Majesty with a 2006 movie, simply titled The Queen, which showed us Her Majesty dealing with a PR crisis after the death of Princess Diana, and he’s currently writing the Netflix series, The Crown, which in its first season dramatized Elizabeth’s reign up to the Suez Crisis.
Despite not being a fan of the Royal Family, I am a fan of Morgan’s movie and, in particular, his series – with its high production values, exquisite acting and fine, wry writing.
The Audience is nowhere near as good – an inartfully structured pageant. The Queen’s equerry-in-waiting (Anthony Bekenn) functions as a narrator – describing furniture and art too expensive to recreate as if he’s reading the stage directions of a 19th-century drama. The play then jumps all over the place in chronology, from prime minister to prime minster – with the Queen occasionally engaging in awkward conversations with herself as a girl (Naomi Cronk) that are all too obviously there so that Reid can make a costume change.
Director Christopher Newton’s stiff production of The Audience does not make up for the uneven script and Reid’s central performance is only occasionally of the star quality necessary to elevate it to the level of a good time. She puts on a squeaky voice as the young Queen that would only be appropriate if she were operating a puppet – but is, indeed, quite entertaining as Elizabeth II in later years, especially when allowed a joke or two.
Morgan penned The Audience before The Crown – and, now, it can feel a bit like a rough outline for the series. Indeed, he borrowed (and improved) some of the dialogue between the Queen and Winston Churchill (John B. Lowe, here) from the play for an early episode.
Lowe could do little to erase the fresh memories of John Lithgow in his brief appearance as Churchill, however – which raises the question of why go see this play when the superior series is at home on Netflix. After all, even a co-production between Mirvish Productions and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre can’t try to compete on the level of production values with the most expensive television series of all time.
Ideally, The Audience should offer a more theatrical vision of the Queen, a contrasting one to the verisimilitude of the televisual depiction. But Newton’s production of the play displays no such imagination – largely consisting, rather dully, of conversations between actors in chairs.
The casting is similarly unimaginative – a parade of white Canadian men attempting impersonations of white British men, with the help of crisp wigs and ill-fitting accents. It’s like the bad old days of the Shaw Festival, which Newton used to run – the only non-pale actor on stage running around playing a servant.
This is not to say that many of the actors playing prime ministers aren’t charming enough in this succession of cameos. Evan Buliung makes a fine, self-deprecating John Major in the only scene in which Canada gets a mention (in a discussion about, of all things, the turbot war). Nigel Bennett is a real charmer, blustery and blokey as Labour prime minister Harold Wilson.
Benedict Campbell, meanwhile, is deliciously depressive as Gordon Brown (remember him?) – with the Queen acting as a kind of therapist to him, discussing mental health and even mentioning her first cousins who ended up in an asylum.
It doesn’t, of course, come into that conversation that the Royal Family publicly pretended as if those cousins did not exist for decades – just as when Colonel Moammar Gadhafi comes up, there’s no mention of the Queen’s son, Prince Andrew, and his shady dealings with him. Morgan does sneak a mention or two of certain Royal Family members’ fascist sympathies into the script – but they play here as a running gag.
The best scene sees Kate Hennig tearing up the stage as Margaret Thatcher – and a better play might have focused just on that difficult relationship alone. There’s a fierce matchup, rather than the mainly mushy ones shown here.
The Audience continues to Feb. 26 (mirvish.com).Report Typo/Error