Playwright Peter Morgan once constructed a play about a British TV personality sitting down with a disgraced U.S. president in conversation. You wouldn’t think the premise of two men sitting in chairs would be the stuff of riveting theatre. Frost/Nixon proved otherwise.
Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay for the 2006 film The Queen about Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with Tony Blair in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, expands the two-chair tableau to something epic in The Audience, taking as its premise the weekly courtesy meetings in the private audience room at Buckingham Palace between the Queen and whichever sitting prime minister happens to be in office.
The historical drama, in which Helen Mirren reprised her role from The Queen on the stage in both London and Broadway, is a Canadian co-production of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Company and Mirvish Productions, with Fiona Reid — one-time queen to Al Waxman’s King of Kensington — taking on that pivotal role. Reid doesn’t look the part as much as Mirren magically managed, but she gives Elizabeth’s precise, measured speech an overlay of sitcom-forged comic timing while conveying the many ages of the Queen with the dazzling finesse of a quick-change artist.
The challenge for Reid, and probably for some audience members, is that Morgan’s expansive narrative — 130 minutes, including intermission — does not proceed in neat chronological order. It starts with Elizabeth advising an emotionally distraught John Major (Evan Buliung) on how to handle a rebellion from within his own party’s ranks in the mid-1990s.
From there, the play bounces back and forth in time. Young Elizabeth has her first audience with PM Winston Churchill (John B. Lowe), and proves to be a match for the wily, battle-hardened politician, changing the rules of the encounters as defined by her late father George VI and cannily bargaining herself serious consideration of her concerns. The political arena can deal wildcards, and so it is with Labour PM Harold Wilson (Nigel Bennett), who approaches the obligation with working-class cheek, but soon finds himself beguiled by the Queen, a resolutely sympathetic ear and, as her experience grows, a deft adviser.
The play is speculative, of course. The meetings have always been private and not subject to reporting. But the tone of these encounters feels right, tonally and historically, especially in the Queen’s breathtaking second act encounter with an enraged Margaret Thatcher (Kate Hennig is note-perfect in the role), who feels violated trust upon reading a newspaper story expressing the Royal Family’s displeasure with the Thatcher government’s unfeeling attitude toward Britain’s most vulnerable. Even if the scene galvanizes Harold Wilson’s assertion that Elizabeth was a closet lefty, it’s a dazzling scene, all the stronger in that it doesn’t call into question the intelligence behind Thatcher’s ruthlessness.
The play’s most fanciful bit is a demonstration of history repeating itself, with Tony Blair (Kevin Klassen) advocating for war in Iraq with the same rationale as Anthony Eden’s (Paul Essiembre) declaration of hostilities against Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956.
The two scenes establish the character of the Queen as a forcibly mute witness to history, tasked with supporting whatever decision the government chooses to make, which, given her insights, makes the constitutional monarchy of Britain a kind of purgatory in which she must serve. To fortify that notion, we see the mature Elizabeth in conversation with her younger self (Naomi Cronk), a young woman increasingly panicked by the obligations of the crown. (Morgan remains a sympathetic voice for the Queen as the writer of the Netflix series The Crown.)
Director Christopher Newton and set/costume designer Christina Poddubiuk mount this show in rich, handsome yet nuanced style, of a piece with many superb performances, with actors Bennett, Buliung, Essiembre and Lowe proving especially adept at breathing life into characters that run the risk of coming off as waxwork reproductions.