The Audience is an international smash hit production, starring Kristin Scott Thomas as Queen Elizabeth II. The story depicts the Queen’s 60 years of weekly audiences with the prime ministers of the UK throughout her reign so far. The Audience turns these explicitly private meetings at Buckingham Palace on their head and openly explores the various crucial historical meetings that could have taken place between the head of state and the political leaders of the UK.
With the election looming The Audience was exceedingly topical. The play shows a turn-wheel of PMs coming and going compared to one monarch who has been a constant. The writer Peter Morgan highlighted this by the repetition of a scene between the Queen and one prime minister, and then later on another PM implored the exact same sentences with the same sincerity.
The prime ministers portrayed were all conveyed larger than life compared to Thomas’s Queen, which made the PMs seem floundering compared to her. Due to the over-exaggerated portrayal of the prime ministers you did get chuckles from the audience instantly identifying these political figures from their idiosyncrasies. For example, Gordon Brown (played by Gordon Kennedy) had an outrageously broad and aggressive Scottish accent. Each leader had an identifying attribute like this, and they all muddled their way comically through these audiences with Her Majesty, humorously adjusting themselves with backhanded compliments or serious faux pas.
The most exciting part of the play was when the Queen entertainingly falls asleep in David Cameron’s presence; played by the versatile Mark Dexter, he takes the opportunity to take a picture of the Queen asleep. However, the real highlight of the production was the growing relationship between the Queen and Harold Wilson, played endearingly by Nicholas Woodeson. To see their relationship grow, and then to conclude in his confiding in her about his resignation was touching in a play that apart from this moment was quite unemotional.
There is a strong theme of the Queen giving her life to her job that underpins the play, and this is emphasised by the confrontation the Queen faces when she’s presented with the warning signs that the monarchy is outdated and the people are unhappy with the distribution of wealth. Thomas’s performance is eloquent and she goes through seamless dramatic age changes instantly as the play’s timeline darts back and forth. She achieves this through her characterisation but also a simple layering of dresses and impressive quick wig swaps.
The production is peppered with ghostly scenes of the Queen in her youth, her childhood wishes fighting against her future position. You see her naivety come through wishing her parents have a boy so she doesn’t have to be monarch and the reality of her having to curtsy to her own parents. This showed the human side to the Queen which in a politically heavy play was a warming relief.
The Apollo Theatre is a grand space suitable for such a regal play and is aimed at a slightly older audience. But if you do know your politics, and especially if you are a royalist, you will enjoy it as the play depicts the Queen as much more than “a postage stamp with a pulse”.
The Audience is playing at the Apollo Theatre until 25 July. For more information and tickets, see the Apollo Theatre website. Photo by Johan Persson.