By: Angela Guardiani
In the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, there is a small, quiet park by Queen Square. I came across it by accident, years ago – I was looking for Virginia Woolf's former home – but once I found the park I wanted to stay. It's full of mature trees, shady, tranquil. At one end is a small monument. It's a broad, shallow bowl planted with flowers, nothing extraordinary, until you come closer and find a poem engraved on the ground.
1952 - 1977
In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange
There was one constant good
She did not change.
It seems cryptic, doesn't it? Yet the meaning is simple; Philip Larkin, England's poet laureate, wrote those lines on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. I've been thinking a lot about that small monument, humble and sturdy, and that poem since watching The Audience. It's a play in which governments rise and fall, wars are waged and lost, momentous events pass by at dizzying speed, and a small, steadfast woman stands at the middle of it all. The Audience is sharply written and sensitively performed. Nothing happens – and yet everything happens.
The plot of The Audience is quite simple, but the emotional arc of the central character, her rich inner life, is profound. Every Tuesday evening, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has a private meeting with the sitting monarch to update her on current affairs. It is a courtesy on the PM's part, not an obligation - Queen Elizabeth, as head of state, cannot interfere with the decisions of elected officials. But as we watch years and events unfold, we can see the queen and her PMs – twelve of them! - connect on a very human level. These meetings are completely private, and not only does that give the playwright free reign to imagine what goes in Buckingham Palace, it lends a refreshingly frank tone to the dialogue. The curtain rises on an elderly Elizabeth and PM John Major discussing how difficult it is to serve in the public eye – and it's really informal, funny, and honest. The Queen sounds like Major's therapist as she sympathizes with his current crisis of confidence, wryly reminding him how very well she knows what it is to be loved and hated by the public.
We catch glimpses of this funny, astute, self-aware woman again and again through the play, relaxing just a bit on holiday in Scotland with Harold Wilson or exchanging pleasantries with John Cameron on Obama's gift of a personalized barbeque. But I don't want you to think that this play is an exposé, an Andrew Morton-like titillating glimpse of a secret life. No, the Queen – played with tenderness and gravitas by Fiona Reid – is very firmly aware that who she is ties into what she is. Her personal and private lives are one.
In one of the only scenes to have more than two characters in it, Elizabeth remembers her coronation, a day more significant to her than her wedding or the birth of her children. She took on a sacred duty to be “one constant good” in the service of her country. That's the kind of duty that very few people are ever called to take on. Is it any wonder, then, that two leaders – the hereditary head of state and the elected leader of the people – can form a sympathetic or at least mutually respectful bond? The Queen and her PMs have a shared experience that very few people will ever participate in, but all can see from a distance.
The Audience is full of great, subtle performances. You won't see any scenery chewing, but you will get sensitive depictions of human beings who hold the lives of millions in their hands. Reid, as mentioned, is just great, but so is Naomi Cronk as young Princess Elizabeth, the girl groomed to be Queen. Nigel Bennett is sympathetic and genial as Harold Wilson, whose adversarial first meeting with the monarch grows into something more profound. And Kate Hennig is superb as Margaret Thatcher. Cold, powerful, fiercely intelligent and utterly principled, she isn't at all likeable, but from the moment she strides onstage in spectator pumps and a pinstriped suit, she is very clearly someone who Gets Things Done.
Not all of the Queen's PMs appear onstage, but she remembers all of them. Memory and constancy are the biggest themes of this play as the Queen reflects on what it means to stand, like a monument, and be steadfast as the world changes. Whatever your feelings on the monarchy, The Audience is an intriguing look at the world of a public institution from the inside.
The Audience, by Peter Morgan, plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until February 26th. Tickets range from $35 - $119 and are available at mirvish.com.
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.