(Gielgud Theatre, London, currently booking until 15 June 2013)
Every Tuesday evening the Queen meets with her Prime Minister to discuss the events of the previous week and to be apprised of plans for the coming week. No minutes are kept of these meetings and so they offer a unique opportunity for sovereign and minister to hold conversations in perfect confidence, allowing a frankness of exchange that is impossible elsewhere. In short it encapsulates the principles of our constitutional monarchy. The Queen benefits from the Prime Minister’s honest opinion of the present situation, while the Prime Minister benefits from the advice and experience the Queen has amassed during her sixty years on the throne.
Peter Morgan’s play recreates a selection of these meetings, scattered through the Queen’s reign, leaping backwards and forwards in time, intelligently using his knowledge of these public figures to create a tantalisingly plausible ‘what-might-have-been’. He has some experience of doing this, as does the play’s director Stephen Daldry: they respectively wrote and directed the excellent 2006 film The Queen. And of course that film and this play have another constant: Helen Mirren, reprising her role here on stage as Elizabeth II. (Speaking of The Queen alumni, I noted that Tony Blair is not one of the featured Prime Ministers and wondered if that was because Michael Sheen wasn’t available and they couldn’t bear to give the part to anyone else.)
I hadn’t known what to expect from this play. The main draw was Helen Mirren, whom I saw in Racine’s Phèdre at the National Theatre in 2009, and who is one of the few actors who can simply do no wrong in my eyes. There was no doubt that her performance would be gripping; and she was reliably superb. Swift onstage costume and wig changes transformed her from the stooped octogenarian of the present day to the ramrod-straight young Queen being photographed in white gown, sash and dazzling tiara by Cecil Beaton. All super stuff. But, on the other hand, there would be a lot of politics and I am not a political being, as any of my friends can attest. Would I be able to follow what was going on? Would I be able to recognise who the prime ministers were? And wasn’t it all going to be rather heavy and serious?
But then the first, glowing reviews started flooding into the press; I learned that there were going to be real corgis on stage; and I’m afraid that was it. I booked myself one of the few remaining cheap tickets, at the back of the vertiginous Grand Circle, and off I went, armed with opera glasses, to learn about 20th-century British politics.
We open with John Major and the Queen in 1995 as Major grapples with the dissatisfaction in his party and wonders whether he should resign; the Queen, seeing a man riven with self-doubt, tries to encourage him by asking gently probing questions about his past and showing him brisk, no-nonsense support. It is an example of the very best kind of interchange: the mutual respect and support that the Queen has learned to cultivate with her ministers during her reign. We then spring back to the new monarch’s very first briefing with Churchill (Edward Fox), a dry and uncompromising proponent of tradition: he tells the Queen that she should listen, take notes and support the Prime Minister in whatever he does. But the Queen is not to be daunted: she has an enquiring mind and the play shows how she gradually learns to soften the tradition of the briefings into a warmer, more informal exchange of ideas and opinions.
Over time she learns to advise, guide and act as a sounding board for her premiers without ever actually influencing them to follow her opinion. By moving from one era to another, Morgan creates clever juxtapositions which throw a different perspective on political events, as well as emphasising the cyclical nature of history.
Political influence, of course, is not part of the Queen’s role and it comes across very strongly how frustrating this must be for her: to have been in a situation before, or to be able clearly to see the flaws of a policy, and yet to be constitutionally obliged to support the Prime Minister. There are two occasions when this is particularly obvious: first during the Suez Crisis, under the fragile, blustering Eden (Michael Elwyn), and secondly during a cool interview with Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne) about trade sanctions against South Africa. The Queen favours the sanctions; Thatcher is firmly against.
This was the only moment of the play that actually seemed clumsy: in order to convey the full irony of Thatcher’s position, it is necessary to let slip that her son Mark is currently working as a fixer for South African businesses. Her politics, it is clear, are not disinterested. The Queen, on the contrary, is nothing but disinterested, as she considers not only the fate of her country but of her Commonwealth. Mrs Thatcher can dismiss the Commonwealth as something to be brushed over: an embarrassing aftertaste of Empire, in her opinion, which has no relevance to modern Britain. That’s a point of view which many people nowadays might share. But the play asks us to see the Commonwealth from the Queen’s point of view. Following Thatcher’s diatribe, we see the young Princess Elizabeth making a speech to the Commonwealth from Cape Town, dedicating herself for life to the service of her people. Her sense of divinely-consecrated duty means that such a promise still resonates, sixty years later.
The humour and drama of the play comes from the Queen’s relationships with her ministers and the uneasy coexistence of tradition and progress. Some scenes, such as those with Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), were an utter delight: he had the most appearances of any minister and we saw his early bullishness fade into fondness and deep respect, before the moving scene in which he tenders his resignation – most poignant for what was left unsaid. The scene with David Cameron was equally enjoyable, mainly for the excellence of Rufus Wright’s impression (complete with earnest gestures) and the sharply up-to-the-minute script. ‘It isn’t as if I can resign,’ the Queen noted at one point. Pause. ‘Unlike the Pope.’ And, on parting from Cameron, she said: ‘So I’ll see you next week, after the Budget. Should I be worried?’ (Our Budget is today.) There’s something rather delicious about having a play that has the flexibility to grow and change to reflect the world around it. And of course, I saw the play on Tuesday evening. It was tempting to speculate how accurately what I saw on stage reflected what was happening at Buckingham Palace only ten minutes’ walk away.
Quite unexpectedly, this was one of the funniest and warmest plays I’ve seen in a long time. Corgis were briefly and judiciously deployed to scamper across the stage, drawing loud ‘ahhhhs!’ from the audience on every appearance. I hear there are plans for a Highland pony in the future. The script is smart, witty and perceptive – there was a lot of laughter to be had – but it had a knack of suddenly pausing on a moment which you gradually realised was actually deeply moving and rather sad. The Queen’s loneliness and isolation, for example. The only one with whom she can share her innermost thoughts is her younger self, who still bridles at the strictures being imposed on her. This dramatic ploy was immensely effective and really the only way in which we could hope to have a believable route into the Queen’s private thoughts. At one point she reminds her younger self that there are few people who can pull off the balance demanded of her: the ability to be sufficiently invisible to live a successful life in the public eye. I found that a very telling comment. The talent for ‘invisibility’ – or what we might call discretion, privacy, self-containment – is one shared by even fewer people nowadays.
Perhaps only the British, post-Jubilee, can understand why it is the perfect moment for a play like this to appear. Indeed, if the Queen had actually employed Daldry and Morgan for her PR, she couldn’t have hoped for anything better. Mirren’s warmth and humanity, both in The Queen and in The Audience, give us the impression of feeling closer to this small, rather stern woman who, for most of us, has been there for our entire lives. For us, like the Prime Ministers, she is a constant. Now, I happily wave flags and sing ‘Jerusalem’ given the slightest opportunity but, like so many people, my affection is for the Queen herself rather than the institution. I admire the grace, dignity and discretion that she maintains in a more intrusive, less deferential age than the one she was born to rule. This is a play which holds up a mirror and invites us to think more deeply about this extraordinary balance at the heart of our constitution. It goes to America next, but I wonder how such a deeply British thing will fare. Can other nationalities understand the complex relationship we have with our monarchy? Can they fully appreciate why it is so meaningful and moving for us; and will they understand why it is so easy for us, nevertheless, to laugh at it?
If you liked The Queen or, for that matter, The King’s Speech, you will thoroughly enjoy this. It’s a very powerful piece of theatre and, if Morgan, Daldry and Mirren don’t win some kind of award for it, I’ll eat my hat.