National Theatre live review: The Audience

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National Theatre Live broadcasts West End hit show The Audience

She is a stoic and a good listener. She has a quiet and ironic sense of humour and a superhuman sense of duty. She thinks nothing of picnicking in Balmoral in freezing temperatures and her favourite Prime Minister was Harold Wilson. Winston Churchill refused to sit down when he was with her and John Major, Britain’s most reluctant Prime Minister, treated her as his psychotherapist.

She is a humanitarian who counts among her friends many of the leaders of African nations and she would give anything in the world for privacy and the privilege of being allowed to be an Ordinary Person.

This, of course, is Peter Morgan’s version of our head of state and Queen, Helen Mirren – sorry, Queen Elizabeth the Second. His play The Audience probably tells us more about our reigning monarch than we’ll ever learn about the enigmatic Real Thing, and in a manner that is sympathetic to the point of idolisation.

A monarch who treats her Prime Ministers with equal respect no matter what party they represent; who is up to speed on current events yet has a profound knowledge and sense of history; who acknowledges that – unlike Queen Beatrice or the Pope – duty dictates that she will never retire or abdicate.

The Queen hasn’t seen the play, apparently, but she should. And now that National Theatre Live has filmed it she could, in the privacy of Buckingham Palace perhaps, which she dislikes (according to Peter Morgan). If she’s anything like this portrayal of her, she’d be tickled pink.

The play owes almost everything to Helen Mirren of course – in fact you could say that Dame Helen ‘owns’ the Queen, and while other actresses have portrayed her in the past (Prunella Scales comes to mind) nobody personifies her more solidly than HM. Long may they both reign.

Alongside Helen Mirren is a cracking cast – in particular Richard McCabe as a (rather more personable than the real thing) Harold Wilson and an unrecognisable Paul Ritter (in a wig) as John Major.

There is a ‘magical’ costume change where Helen Mirren is transformed from her 60s to her 20s in full view of the audience. Everything, from the costumes to HM’s astonishing ability to age and de-age and change shape in seconds, is immaculate.

June 15th marked the play’s last night at London’s Gielgud Theatre, but now that the miraculous National Theatre Live has recorded it, generations to come will have the unique opportunity to view one of the great performances of our times.

The Audience was transmitted all over London and the UK on 14 June and you could hardly get a ticket. It’s a revolution in theatre and I only wish National Theatre Live had been around a hundred or more years ago so we could all have seen what Olivier and Irving and Kean and Garrick were really like.