On the last day in June, I was allowed the treat of viewing a special screening of The Audience at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. The show, presented by National Theatre Live of London, stars Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II.
This show was fantastic. The whole experience of being at the Music Box Theatre was a part of the special screening too. When I walked into the large theatre, a live organ was playing songs from My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins. Clearly, this was more of an older audience, but the songs were not lost on me.
The theatre itself was stunning. If you’ve never been to Music Box it’s something historic with the feel of an old Hollywood movie theatre. For the past twenty or so years it has been the place to see independent films in Chicago. They also screen many other productions of National Theatre Live and there are more upcoming this summer. The line to get into The Audience really displayed how much interest there is in not only this show, but NT Live in general.
2013 marks the 50th anniversary of NT Live and The Audience was broadcasted live to over 700 cinemas across the world. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is about the conversations between Queen Elizabeth and each of her majesty’s Prime Ministers. In the time of Queen Elizabeth there have been 12.
Each week the Prime Minister and the Queen would hold an audience, or a short meeting in Buckingham Palace. The true content of the audiences is unknown to anyone except the Queen and her PM. Both are understood to never speak about these meetings. Morgan’s show is the imagined conversations that reveal some charged relationships and reflects upon the unpopular parts of the monarchy. From Churchill to Cameron, Queen Elizabeth has supported each Prime Minister in her own way. Indeed, it is clear she liked some more than others.
Mirren was comedic in her role, and the other audience (us, the viewers) was treated to seeing the Queen in a light that we normally don’t see. Whether real or imagined, hearing her majesty’s opinion and seeing her interact with the most powerful men in the country was fascinating. The sessions were sometimes like therapy sessions for both the Queen and the Prime Ministers. Everything is touched on, from Charles’ marriage to Diana’s death, the Queen’s childhood and her rebellion, and even her majesty’s beloved corgis.
The real standout of the show was the costumes and costume changes. While it was Mirren the entire show, the changes she went through in dress and wig clearly showed which Prime Minister was in power and in what stage of the Queen’s life we were in. Sometimes these changes happened onstage, in a matter of seconds. To the credit of director Stephen Daldry, I still don’t know how it was done because it was so seamless and came as small shocks to the audience. There were audible “ahs” when a few costume people would appear onstage, dressed as maids, and transform the old Queen Elizabeth into the young. The dresses also were shaped to show the Queen’s changing figure over the years.
What is neat about this screening is the fact that during intermission there is an interview with Mirren and a sneak peek behind stage to see how the costume changes were done. It was intriguing to see how much had gone into the production and emphasis on the accuracy of the Queen’s wardrobe.
Beyond the mysterious and theatrical clothing, the story itself was extremely captivating. What I was left with was a sense of wonder about the future of the English monarchy. Towards the end of the show, the modernity of the current political climate and the tradition of the monarchy clashing became a center point. This conflict has resulted in many changes from the royal family and the Queen, like opening up Buckingham Palace to visitors and the loss of the royal private yacht Britannia.
I was waiting for the audience with the Iron Lady and when it finally came, I was not disappointed. This was a turning point in the show and the contested traditions started to fall apart after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The issues going on in the United Kingdom at present are also addressed, as there is some talk of a new royal baby. This sort of relevance only adds to the reflection in the enormity of the Queen’s life and her influence.
Leaving the show, it’s all I could think about. The power of this one woman and her unbounding constant as the figurehead of a country is just incredible. National Theatre Live is an amazing production and this is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
Music Box Theatre is showing an encore presentation on July 3rd and July 16th at 7:30pm.