Under the pressure of invisibility one must execute the most visible job in the world.
Of central importance throughout the Queen’s reign is the weekly audience with her prime minister. These meetings are utterly private, and no written record of what is said exists. However, in interviews or in memoirs, the prime ministers and the Queen herself have let slip small pieces of information (for example, the Queen once divulged in a BBC interview that the PMs ‘unburden themselves’, and John Major said that one could say ‘absolutely anything’ to Her Majesty), and it is on these, along with a healthy amount of educated guesswork, that Peter Morgan has based The Audience. Herein lies the problem: without this wishful thinking, there would be no drama – the monarch is expected to ‘unconditionally support’ her prime minister and ‘always agree’ – and yet Morgan must also maintain credibility. Unfortunately, he does not always succeed.
Morgan and Helen Mirren have already worked together in portraying the Queen, in the 2006 film for which Mirren won an Oscar. In that film, Morgan’s respect and admiration for the Queen shone through, although she was often manipulated by Michael Sheen’s wickedly good Tony Blair. While Blair does not appear in The Audience (he is referred to only in passing, in a few uncharacteristically, one imagines, contemptuous remarks made by the Queen herself), Morgan’s esteem for the Queen is no less apparent, and Mirren gives another exceptional performance.
Mirren’s achievement is all the greater given that she is required to play the Queen from the very start of her reign, at the age of just 25, right up to the present day (she is now 86). Mirren is undoubtedly aided in her transformation by a marvellous set of costumes, by Rick Fisher’s clever use of lighting and by Ivana Primorac’s hair and make-up, but the changes in voice (from the plummy tones of her youth to the slightly more relaxed, though still undeniably posh, tones of today), in body language (the different ways in which she folds her hands in her lap, or fusses with her handbag, or walks across the stage) are all down to Mirren, and she inhabits the Queen to such a degree you can’t fathom anyone else playing her.
The prime ministers, on the other hand, are much less reliable. Paul Ritter as John Major and Richard McCabe as Harold Macmillan stand out, but Nathaniel Parker is a rare disappointment as Gordon Brown, insufficiently dour and with an inconsistent Scottish accent. Ritter makes for an oddly humorous, self-deprecating and insecure John Major, bemoaning his status as the ‘invisible man’ and fretting because he only has 3 O Levels. The Queen commiserates (‘I have no O Levels at all’), and offers him a handkerchief. McCabe brilliantly charts Macmillan’s journey from chippy left-wing politician to a man who came to have deep respect and affection for the Queen, and the scene in which he tells her of his plans to resign due to the onset of dementia is touching and demonstrates the depth of their relationship.
Though Rufus Wright and Hadyn Gwynne capture Cameron and Thatcher brilliantly, by this point the writer’s politics are beginning to shine through, and the portrayal of these two Conservative prime ministers moves dangerously close to a Spitting Image sketch: Rufus Wright as a wonderfully slick David Cameron, complete with energetic, loping stride, laboured gestures and manner of speaking, and Haydn Gwynne’s over-emphasised walk and obsequious curtsey. Though Thatcher declares that they should speak ‘woman to woman’, in her audience she complains about the Queen’s conduct, criticises Her Majesty’s view of the Commonwealth and congratulates herself on having encouraged the British people to ‘look after number one’. Morgan is certainly not holding back! Mirren spends much of the audience with Thatcher biting her lower lip. While it may be true that the Queen and Thatcher did not get on, it would have been more interesting, and less obviously political, to consider them as two arguably very similar women, born just six months apart, both mothers, both in positions of power in a male-dominated society, and to choose an audience that would have explored that relationship in a more nuanced and interesting way.
Although Morgan advertises his own political beliefs, the point of these audiences is not to offer revelations of this kind (though Morgan does make the Queen betray her position over the Suez crisis and the use of sanctions on South Africa) but to create a portrait of the woman behind the monarch who has devoted her whole life to public service. Morgan’s Queen is intelligent and dedicated, reading ‘every piece of paper’ delivered to her; she’s compassionate and understanding, advising Gordon Brown to make sure he gets enough sleep and reassuring him by saying she thinks she, too, has a touch of OCD; and she has a wicked sense of humour. Yet Morgan also ensures that we see the Queen as a woman who wants to be an ordinary wife, devastated when Churchill tells her neither she nor her children can ever take the name Mountbatten, and worrying that Philip will feel ‘neutered’ in his own household. Morgan even allows her to imagine what she would do in an ‘unlived life’, in which people don’t always want something from her and she doesn’t feel lik a ‘postage stamp with a pulse’.
At times Morgan risks descending into sentimental monarchism, but Mirren’s luminous performance and Daldry’s astute direction just about prevent The Audience from subsiding into a series of sketches (the audience with Cameron is regularly updated so as to include the latest topical jokes). The Queen’s conversations with her own younger self also help here; as she passes on her advice and wisdom we are given more than a glimpse of the loneliness and solitude to which she has been forced to become accustomed.
It is a pity that Morgan’s politics are so obvious, and that there are more than a few mis-steps – surely it is unnecessary, even in the service of drama, to have ‘the grandchildren’ set the Queen’s mobile ring tone to the song Gangnam Style, and it is inconceivable that the Queen would confide to one prime minister her own personal opinion of another. What he does achieve, however, is a refined exploration of the difficulties of constitutional monarchy and a real sense of the Queen’s level of sacrifice.
Helen Mirren is undoubtedly the best thing about The Audience: she gives us a Queen who possesses a great depth of humanity and sensitivity, and she gives us a woman whose duty it is to serve and to listen, forced into a paradoxical life in which she must always be visible, and yet invisible.