Tom and I went to see “The Audience” last night, a play about Queen Elizabeth II’s first sixty years of encounters with the prime ministers of Great Britain. It was marvelous!
Written by Peter Morgan (screenwriter for “The Queen” and for “The Crown” TV series) and directed by Miles Potter, the play featured an excellent cast, including Seana McKenna (who has 25 years with the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, making her debut at Theatre Calgary), and numerous local actors who held their own with this royal queen.
The play isn’t about Queen Elizabeth so much as being a reflection on her influence on the 12 prime ministers with whom she met on a weekly basis throughout their individual terms. As she states repeatedly throughout the play, it is her job to agree with the prime minister’s policies and decisions, at least publicly, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t attempt to influence them (one or two degrees either way) during their weekly audiences.
The actors who played the prime ministers were excellently cast, particularly Graham Percy (Harold Wilson) and Declan O’Reilly (Gordon Brown). While not one of the prime ministers, but certainly important to the queen and to the flow of the play, Christopher Hunt was perfect as the Equerry (an officer of the royal household who assists the queen, guarding her surreptitiously while appearing to be merely her servant).
I’m no Royalist, and don’t follow the British monarchy much, but it did strike me odd, given that he was the second-longest holder of the office of prime minister, that Tony Blair was only in one brief tangent scene. Perhaps I missed something in history, though at one point, the queen did indelicately say that her husband despised the man. I guess that goes for the playwright as well…
One amusing, but to me incredulous, incident was the search for a book to read at Balmoral. Harold Wilson was going to give an example of his photographic memory, but a book was nowhere at hand. Finally, the queen suggests looking in a guest room. How can a monarch not be a reader?!
Near the end of the play, the Queen’s asks her equerry if he thinks she has a favorite prime minister. It could be Winston Churchill, her grumbling but kindly mentoring first prime minister (Ian Deakin), or the dapper and dashing Anthony Eden (Stephen Hair), or the somewhat vain and definitely self-deprecating John Major (Kevin Rothery), or even the “colossus” Gordon Brown (O’Reilly), or the out-of-his-element Harold Wilson (Percy), or the caustic and focused Margaret Thatcher (Kelli Fox). I won’t spoil the answer, but the answer is given in a particularly charming manner.
In a final reflection, the queen says that her role has not been to lead the country, but to support the prime ministers by allowing them a place to speak freely, with no fear of what they say leaving the room. In that room, they can be truly themselves, if necessary, while she is the solid, unchanging object, the “touchstone” against which they can compare their time in office to others who came before them. When she became queen, she was “consecrated,” not merely crowned, and she takes her duty to God and country more seriously than any other duty in her life. She admits that she isn’t the most educated or the most imaginative of people, but she suggests that perhaps she has endured so solidly over the past six decades for that very reason. Anyone else might have made a mess of the task.
This queen is humble, a servant who serves her people every day. I know this was just a play, but it made me admire Queen Elizabeth II even more. I don’t think there are many servants in the world of power today; perhaps she is the last of her breed.
For more about the show, with interviews and some scenes from the play, visit the Theatre Calgary page.