The current reigning queen, Elizabeth II, is having a pop culture moment. Ninety years old and having been our monarch for 64 years, 7 months and 18 days (as of time of typing) she still has a hold on our imagination. Almost equally beloved and reviled, she is an enigmatic figure, a person who lives perpetually in the public eye but who resolutely keeps her inner life private. And that may be the key to her success, it is hard not to be wonder about just what makes her tick.
The Audience attempts to satiate our curiosity by presenting Queen Elizabeth in her most intimate moments (aside from the ones she has with Prince Philip): during her weekly one-on-one meetings with England's prime minister and in her childhood memories. There have been 13 prime ministers whose time in office has coincided with the Queen's time as sovereign ruler, so author Peter Morgan had ample material to draw from. And imagine from.
A narrator/butler, Anthony Bekenn, begins by setting the scene and indulging in some descriptive decor porn that, considering the opulent looking sets, also warns us that while we will be titillated by revelations, the Queen's inner life has been artfully concealed with carefully constructed artifice. From there The Audience ignores chronology, this is no dull history play, and Morgan chooses moments that offer the most drama.
Intriguingly, the drama is mostly ignored. While the events occurring outside the meetings, the history, ground the audience in the exact time - we may not remember the prime minister but we all have some form of reference to Sir Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, the Suez Crisis, Sarah Ferguson's wedding to Prince Andrew, the decommissioning of the Britannia, Thatcherism, and the toe-sucking scandal - while the Queen's concerns remain the same. Fiona Reid (London Road) creates an Elizabeth who is naive, crafty, quick with a quip, a quick change artist, and desperately concerned with her own, and her family's relevance.
And there is the crux of The Audience. While the Queen believes she rules by divine right, she is powerless other than as a figurehead who endorses what parliament decides. Her only influence is when she can cajole or charm the prime minister into supporting her agenda. She becomes quite good at it though she is stymied by Margaret Thatcher, played boisterously by a comically venomous Kate Hennig. The grand coronation scene that ends the first act is a long way from the frail woman who struggles to explain the relevance of the Commonwealth as an entity. When the British Empire is no more, why do we need a Queen?
Reid not only captures the vocal cadence of Queen Elizabeth but also embodies the various physicalities as she ages and de-ages amidst the multitude of rapid costume and wig changes. It is a funny, smart and very regal performance - the prime ministers don't really stand a chance. Reid, Morgan and director Christopher Newton refuse to make a statement on the validity of the Queen or even pass judgement on her, instead they present a complex shallow character trapped in a stringent and gilded cage. The audience can leave the theatre more aware, but they have not been told to either love or loathe her.
Being one of those who believe that the royal family has no place in 2017 (or from the '50s on for that matter) and are parasites, bobble-heads who serve the same function for England as a Goofy mascot does for Disneyland or the Kardashians do for the pending apocalypse, I found the moments of satire the most entertaining. The inner life of the servants appear as stifled, and more harried, than that of the Queen. Morgan asserts that the Queen, who complains of being home-schooled but only in royal etiquette, has no books in Balmoral Castle - she is not presented as the intellectual giant one would suppose that divine right would select.
But despite myself, I found myself laughing at her quips, feeling for her desire to be merely human, and, of course, cheering for the corgis, who really should have made more appearances. I'm not easily seduced by pomp and circumstance but I am a sucker for great performances, cleverly enigmatic writing, and razor-sharp comic lines. The Audience may not have swayed my feelings towards Elizabeth II, but it provided a fascinating need to explore just why I feel that way. Instead of satiating my curiosity, it further aroused it. And that is a royal treat.
The Audience continues until Sun, Feb 26 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St W. mirvish.com