Of all Peter Morgan’s interpretations of supposed reality, The Audience was surely the most appealing idea, and for one very solid reason. These audiences between The Queen and her Prime Minister of the day are the last word in privileged conversation: last word because neither party speaks about them afterwords – at least they’re not meant to, although that is another story. Privileged because the participants are at the top of their respective trees, royalty and politics.
Because none of us knows what went on in the weekly sessions, none of us can take issue with Morgan’s versions, which are not so much re-imaginings as imaginings from scratch. So it’s open season on the most publicly private encounters in English public life. As Churchill points out to the then 27-year-old monarch, as new to her role as Churchill is old to his, this system, these chats therefore, are the historically forged conduit between the great estates of Parliament and the Crown.
Fast forward to the second decade of the new millennium and you have the now octogenarian monarch treating the young Cameron much as she was treated by Sir Winston – a well meaning but inevitably naif grandchild. As for all those decades in between, what larks. In they trail, or strut, or sulk, in a random rather than a chronological order: the debonair Eden (physically perfect Michael Elwyn), tortured by his own deceit over Suez; the bumptious Wilson, (in effect the co-star Richard McCabe) the overlooked Sunny Jim Callaghan (David Peart); Mrs. T. (worryingly convincing Haydn Gwynne); nerdy John Major (Paul Ritter); David Cameron (fresh-faced Rufus Wright.)
With this lot, Peter Morgan could hardly go wrong, and he doesn’t. On the one hand it’s a knockabout procession of oddballs through a chilly palace during a time when irreverant impersonations reached the unimagined heights of peak-viewing. Everything became fair game, from Churchill’s brandy-slushed esses, through Macmillan’s drawl (Peter Cook’s early 1960s version is said to have reduced him to tears, but not of laughter) to Heath’s elocuted uppishness, to Blair’s equally contrived Estuarian, and so on.
But this is not an animated display of political cartoons. With nothing more than plausibility on his side, Morgan provides some marvellous flurries of passionate exchange and contempt, all conducted beneath the straining veil of constitutional politesse. Most memorable of these is with Eden, who learns to his horror that the slip of a girl before him has not only read all the contents of all the red boxes, but has also worked out that the Sevres Protocol agreeing the joint operation against Egypt over Suez by Britain, France and Israel was covertly agreed without Parliament knowing a thing about it. Elwyn’s portrayal of the patrician squirming on the blade of his own duplicity is a marvellous, mortal pain to behold.
Then there is Wilson, from his rather bowed appearance all humility and Huddersfield, but in reality (that is, for the purposes of the evening, Morgan’s reality) sharp, stroppy, feisty and defiant. In a hilarious scene at Balmoral he offers to show off his photographic memory by briefly scanning the page of a book. She looks around her, sees nothing to hand, picks up the phone and says “Can we have a book.” Very funny, but on this occasion, using a false stereotype (that she is a philistine Windsor) for an easy laugh. In fact Morgan redeems himself from possible charges of treason by mentioning that the palace’s library is rather far away, and the show goes on.
Take these two portrayals together – Eden and Wilson – and something interesting, and very likely true, emerges about the nature of their common interlocutor; namely, that she makes her own mind up; is not to be seduced into acquiescence by the class prerogative of Eden (nor the sadly absent last grandees, Macmillan and Douglas-Home); is not to be alienated by an awkward, enormously bright Yorkshireman who pretends to be a pipe-smoker so that he can buy himself time for answering tricky questions.
Playwrights who invent a character “from nothing” will tell you that this person will then assert himself/herself in the course of the writing and so be partly responsible – via the author’s keyboard, of course – for their own creation. Something of this sort seems to have taken place between Morgan and the Monarch, although we shall never know, shall we.
On the evidence before us, what we do know is that this play is a rich hybrid, rather as the figure of the Prime Minister becomes through the variety of its incumbents. We also know that Helen Mirren is, so to speak, the real thing, inflecting her voice and face with such practised skill that she sometimes bears the look not just of the Queen but of the late Queen Mother. We also know that Stephen Daldry has directed the piece with just the right blend of pageantry and intimacy to match the public/private dance before us.
It would be tempting to say that the one constant in the evening, and indeed in the past 60 years of the kingdom, is the Queen herself. But this is not true and applies only to her presence. She changes not only with the nature of the conversation and of the man, or woman, with whom she is having it, but also with mood, the national one and her own. Both are in evidence, never more so than during the dire industrial conflicts of the Eighties.
When it comes to the interests of the Commonwealth, she becomes gracious, almost loving in her speech; the “African Queen,” as much an Empress figure as it is possible to be this century and a bit after the reign of her great great grandmother. When it comes to being told, by a fearless, classless John Major that the Royal Yacht Britannia will have to be scrapped, she comes across as spoilt and petulant, talking like any other stroppy aristo on the slide about how “sometimes one has to draw a line.”
This one will reign and reign, as serious a sitcom as you could wish for. And I’m not only speaking of the play. As Churchill never lived to say: “Some situation, some comedy.”
Review by Alan Franks who you can follow on Twitter at @alanfranks and at www.alanfranks.com
London, W1D 6AR
17th March 2013