(Cross-posted from elsewhere, considering the links to previous books I’ve read and reviewed here.)
I saw an NT Live showing of The Audience last night, in which Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II during her weekly audiences with a number of her prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. (It was filmed in 2013, so unlike the recent West End revival it does not do the trick where the dialogue in Cameron’s scenes changes from week to week based on current events. Thankfully for us all.)
I greatly enjoyed it and laughed quite a lot, though the thing I was most struck by was the play’s deliberate choice to focus on illness, physical and mental, of the people in power. Anthony Eden openly takes a dose of what I believe to be dexamyl on stage shortly before his audience with the Queen, and appears to be in a tightly wound, near-manic state throughout his scene as he rants about Nasser, Hitler, and Mussolini at the height of the Suez Crisis. Gordon Brown tries to speak cheerfully and casually as he mentions his new diet and the foods he can’t eat, a direct reference to the rumours swirling in 2009 that he was taking MAOIs to combat depression. (The Queen chimes in sympathetically with an admission of OCD tendencies — ‘pens and shoes must be lined up just so, or I get very vexed‘.) And Harold Wilson’s early decline into Alzheimer’s disease has the most poignant scene at the play’s heart, where even the Queen is shocked at how her prime minister’s once-razor-sharp mental faculties are visibly crumbling into paranoia and forgetfulness. The Queen herself reveals her emotional and physical weaknesses during a scene set in 1992, where she is fighting a terrible cold and watching her children’s marriages fall apart as John Major struggles to convince her that the royal family will have to make changes to their lifestyle or risk greater public displeasure. To me, it seems a reasonable choice to use illness as the vehicle for humanizing both the monarchy and the premiership, though I was a bit surprised that Eden’s terrible physical health (following his botched gallbladder operation) and Wilson’s alcoholism weren’t mentioned as well.
Helen Mirren is a delight throughout, especially in the scenes where she converses with a younger version of herself who seems to embody her rebellious, free-spirited streak. The only scene I found grating was the one with Margaret Thatcher — though I found it difficult to tell whether I was reacting more negatively to Thatcher-as-Thatcher or to Haydn Gywnne’s interpretation of her.
It certainly helps to know something about the politics and personalities of the time, but I don’t think it’s a requirement to enjoy the production. I’m not sure how many more encore presentations it will receive, but it’s certainly worth checking out. It’s certainly prompted me to revisit sections of Peter Hennessy’s book on prime ministers, which might well be good supplemental reading for viewers of the play.