Palace in Wonderland: The Audience review

Written by Ben Duckworth on 14 March 2013 in Culture
Ben Duckworth reviews Peter Morgan’s new play The Audience, an amusing and intriguing imagining of the Queen’s mysterious meetings with her prime ministers throughout the ages

This article is from the April 2013 issue of Total Politics

It was unlikely that a play starring Helen Mirren as the Queen would be received with anything less than rapture from a London theatre audience. Her performance in Peter Morgan’s new play The Audience deserves considerable plaudits though. It is not a flawless play but it provides plenty for anyone pondering the art of longevity in the most public of positions. 
There are also some effective questions posed about the relative strengths of our monarchy and elected prime ministers. For those with a reasonable political knowledge, it is the role of the Queen that provides the most interesting insight rather than the insecure, stressed characters occupying the opposite seat during the weekly meeting between the head of state and her prime ministers.
The twenty minute chat is a strictly confidential affair, so The Audience is an imagined concoction of what may have happened. Thankfully, this is no chronological plod from the 1950s to present, and Tony Blair is not featured. Quite enough of that in Mirren’s first turn as the monarch in 2006’s The Queen. Instead, starting off with John Major, we whizz about the decades, from Major to Harold Wilson to Gordon Brown. 
The portrayals of prime ministers have mixed success. We know so much about Brown’s time in power that the scene fails to add anything to our understanding of this complicated son of a manse. Eden’s disingenuousness is nicely picked apart by the monarch, while I also enjoyed feeling Churchill’s overbearing sense of duty. It was also interesting to find David Cameron remaining undefinable. His scene is interrupted by Jim Callaghan and is generally played for laughs. 
There are some lovely details of the meetings, normally taking place in a Buckingham Palace room with four paintings on the wall “Two Canalettos and two Gainsboroughs”. Arch bitchiness is on show from the Queen, with her misnaming Cherie Blair as “Cheryl” and slagging off Edward Heath to her favourite, Harold Wilson. This led to the most poignant line in the play, when the monarch declares to a declining Wilson, about to resign in 1976, that he was “a better companion.” 
It raises the question about the point of the meetings, beyond good manners from a prime minister. Do they aid the governance of the nation, or simply allow a prime minister to let off steam and the Queen to feel involved in the affairs of a government? 
Mirren’s ability to fulfil the role as both a young, inexperienced Queen being bossed around by an elderly Churchill, and understandably falling asleep to a droning Cameron, is remarkable. She has the ability to up the pathos beyond mere entertainment, particularly when confronted with Major suggesting scrapping the Royal Yacht or facing a clearly unsettled Brown. It is suggested her ordinariness provides her with the strength her prime ministers often lack. 
The scenes where the Queen speaks to her younger self show an appealing rebellious side, even if it stretches credulity. Sitting in a dreary Balmoral living room − “lit by a three bar fire purchased from John Lewis in 1965” − she expounds on a dream existence of living in a farm in the middle of nowhere in Scotland with lots of animals. 
This idea of what she called “the unlived life” marks a theme throughout the play. Sitting in Buckingham Palace, that she and the Duke of Edinburgh both loathe, the Queen imagines the carefree existence that was taken away from her by Edward VIII’s abdication. Still, it can’t be that bad to be worthy of another portrayal by Helen Mirren, eh?
The Audience runs until 15 June at the Gielgud Theatre, London. The box office can be called on 0844 4825130, or visit

Tags: April 2013, Ben Duckworth, Helen Mirren, Issue 57, Peter Morgan, Review, The Audience

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