The British monarchy is a strange hybrid beast, and it clearly fascinates playwright Peter Morgan, who wrote the script for the 2006 movie The Queen, which starred Helen Mirren, as well as the Netflix series The Crown and the 2012 play The Audience, currently receiving a regional premiere at Vintage Theatre. An expensive and perhaps outdated anomaly, the monarchy acquires its power, symbolic yet immutable, from centuries of history and enduring pageantry — and no one does pageantry as brilliantly as the supposedly stodgy Brits.
But while Elizabeth I could declare war, have her enemies beheaded and take the country in any direction she wanted, the current Elizabeth, now 92 years old, is a figurehead. Or, as she calls herself in Morgan’s witty and entertaining play, “a postage stamp with a pulse.” Except that there’s a wordless force in the woman’s ordinariness, propriety and devotion to duty, as well as the extraordinary length of her reign. Elizabeth II represents national identity and historical continuity. And because the queen is the queen, the prime minister, who actually does most of the work of running the country, is not only freed from ceremonial duties, but spared the burden of embodying Englishness. An American president represents the United States for good or ill; he’s larger than life and carries hyperbolic titles like “leader of the free world” and “commander in chief,” all of which gives him dangerous power. But a British prime minister is just an ordinary bloke doing a job.
This bloke — or woman, in the case of Margaret Thatcher — comes to the palace weekly for an audience with Her Majesty. No one knows what transpires during these sessions, but Morgan imagines everything from cozy teas to occasional moments of queenly empathy to political discussions. The queen must be neutral and supportive whether the PM is Labour or Conservative, yet in the play she sometimes volleys a few sharp questions, and her simple presence can help a baffled minister clarify his own thoughts.
The Audience’s Elizabeth follows English history from Churchill to David Cameron, though the action isn’t continuous but moves back and forth in time to illustrate particular themes. We see, for example, the parallels between Britain’s actions during the 1956 Suez crisis and George W. Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq. We also see how the queen responds — or doesn’t — to the fading of the British empire and the changing public perception of her own position. Is the real Elizabeth as smart or as liberal as she’s shown here? Did she foresee the lunacy of the Suez invasion or loathe Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the working class? No one can know, but Morgan spins an engaging web of speculation.
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This Vintage production is directed by Bernie Cardell, and it includes several interesting ministers along with the queen. The most convincing are Mark Collins’s John Major and Andy Anderson’s working-class Harold Wilson; Chad Patten does yeoman work as the equerry who ushers each guest into the audience room.
But the queen is the star, and Deborah Persoff has all the humor, presence and majesty needed to carry both the role and the evening. She has to show Elizabeth changing back and forth in age from young to middle-aged to very old; these scenes are stitched together with the device of a younger self who appears in the interstices between queen-minister colloquies and who rebels against the role she’s inherited and can never escape. This doesn’t quite work, and seeing the adult queen essentially coaching and comforting herself feels oddly narcissistic.
There’s another bothersome slip, this one in the production: As Elizabeth prepares for her coronation, the crown is raised toward her head as lightly and easily as if it were cardboard. Only one woman alive understands how it feels to wear that crown, and we know from the queen herself that it’s immensely heavy: “You can’t look down to read the speech — you have to take the speech up,” she’s said. “Because if you did, your neck would break.”
That’s a fitting metaphor for both the unworldly glamour of the role and the weight of a nation’s expectations, carried on human shoulders for a lifetime.
The Audience, presented by Vintage Theatre through May 13, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.com.