This revival of Peter Morgan’s hit, an imagining of the private weekly meetings the Queen holds with her presiding Prime Minister of the time, stars Kristin Scott Thomas in the lead role. The Queen has lived through 12 PMs – a fact that won’t be changing for another 5 years- here we get 8 of them in sketches that, whilst hilarious, sometimes lean towards parody, yet conversely shine a perceptive light on the nature of identity and individuality.
However, whole essays too could be dedicated to handbag culture and foot etiquette alone. Want to know what the Queen really thinks about you? Take a look and see how her feet are crossed and where they are pointing. Or see whether she is perched in one corner of the 18th Century Louis XV Chair (as she invariably is in later years) or sat lolling on it and girlish as she was when meeting Winston Churchill (David Calder) in 1953. Boundaries, physical and psychological, are put firmly in place as the Queen ages: there is a play on the distinction between private and public, exhibit and non-exhibit. And the more one thinks about it – and even though our historical and political anticipations are fulfilled with the starry eyed Blair (Mark Dexter) or acquiescent Major (Michael Gould) and we laugh with as much sarcasm as we do sadness at the parallels between Eden/ Suez and Blair/ Iraq – the more one starts to see this as an experiment in perception and reality, where the greater meanings in the play are pulled out by a structural device: the provocations of a younger Elizabeth (Izzy Meikle-Small). It is the contrast between that young self and the self the Queen now is which allows for a sense of potential unfulfilled, or duty successfully carried out (albeit sometimes tight lipped). And slowly, slowly, as the Queen ages, we see her as tightly bound by protocol as she is by the dresses she must wear – her life is now as upholstered as the expensive French chairs that she sits on.
And the life is slightly schizophrenic. To get this across the play zaps between different eras, not just for thematic comparisons (‘same people, same ideas’) and a sense of our country’s evolution (or and more so, lack of it) but also to give the piece a mood of its own. Kristin Scott Thomas runs a gamut of attitudes and emotions as quickly as The Badis as we flip between 1953, 1992 or the present day… She must show deference towards Winston Churchill, meet Harold Wilson on his own terms and engage in the battle of the handbags with Mrs T…But despite all the iciness, the Queen is not presented as someone who is inaccessible.
The Audience’s real achievement is to hold up a mirror to someone whose life is so far removed from ours that to think about its minutiae might be unconscionable, and reflect back ourselves. Whilst we focus on the politicians (and you can hear a pin drop when she asks Tony Blair ‘When do the air strikes begin?’) it is the Queen’s dreaminess about ‘The unlived lives of us all’ that gives us pause for thought. And which in today’s political climate, should give us all more pause for thought. For the Queen, the life she so longs for is as distant as the two empty chairs at the end of Bob Crowley’s almost kaleidoscopic stage. She is also someone whom it is just as easy to unlove as to love- a bit like us all. Her harmless empathic flirting with Harold Wilson (Nicholas Woodeson) turns to self-pitying stubborn anger with Major and sneery snobbery at Diana’s marital woes. She displays a deep seated pettiness which comes with privilege. We also see how her affections, when dared to be expressed, are tied up in objects. The Royal Yacht is all she has left of her father. Even her desire to pray alone becomes objectified and has an audience.
Although rib achingly funny, humaneness is really at the play’s core in Stephen Daldry’s interpretation. You can’t look at Anthony Eden and not feel moved by his trembling hands. Or Gordon Brown’s self-destructive rigorous introspection.
The Audience exposes everyone’s vulnerabilities. It is not just what the Queen may be to a PM, or they to her. It also about what she means to us. Especially today. And, in the light of today’s events, maybe the ending should have a quick rewrite too.