Theatreland: Roderick Gilchrist
Helen Mirren is no monarchist. Indeed she was in her revolutionary youth an avowed republican. Now she says she favours a slimmed down royal family while recognising the job the Queen has done for the nation.
But I wonder if Her Majesty privately returns the compliment.
It would be instructive to know just how Elizabeth II responded to Mirren’s portrayal of her in The Queen, a film which, I suspect, gave the British nation a deeper understanding of the public and private pressures on Her Majesty.
Now Mirren has advanced her intuitive take on the monarch to new levels of sympathy and understanding as she plays the Queen in The Audience, an imaginative new play by Peter Morgan, also the author of the film which did so much to advance Mirren’s reputation and, as I say, the Queen’s.
The play reconstructs the private weekly encounters between Elizabeth and her prime ministers over the 60 years of her reign. All PMs from Churchill to Cameron have a cameo with the exception of Heath, Douglas- Home and Blair – who figured so extensively in the film The Queen that Morgan felt he should leave him out.
Mirren’s reviews have been ecstatic. Morgan also gives her some of the best lines of her career. Mirren as the Queen reminds
us she doesn’t have any O levels and that she is not just a wife and mother but also a symbol – “a postage stamp with a pulse,” as she drily observes.
For those of us attracted to grown-up drama, written with great perception, acted with almost uncanny understanding of the characters portrayed and staged with monumental set designs that convince us we are actually in Buckingham Palace eavesdropping on these weekly conversations, it is theatrical cat nip.
I’ve lost count of the number of times the last rites have been said over the West End theatre since I first sat in the blush red velvet stalls back in the 60s.
The richness and variety of the West End remains the envy of Broadway and the delight of tourists across the world. From War Horse and the horrors of the First World War, to the comedy of One Man, Two Guvnors, from the intellectual stimulus of Rowan Atkinson’s Oxbridge professor in Quartermaine’s Terms to Harold Pinter’s moody Old Times, it is a feast that stimulates the senses and the brain.
And what of musicals? Is the song and dance made about how they are choking new drama valid? The great value of shows like A Chorus Line or Mamma Mia is how they lift the spirits. And my God, don’t we need that in these austere times.
There is another significant hidden benefit, too. Without fanfare Judy Craymer, producer of Mamma Mia, has channelled some of her profits into new theatre at the Donmar and other smaller stages, ensuring lesser-known writers and actors are given a chance to work and possibly become stars who will themselves ensure the future of theatre in Britain.
I make no apology for my flag- waving for the British theatre. It is one of our great cultural heritages. And here there are parallels with the Queen, if that’s not too fanciful. Like her, to endure they have to change with the times.
It is disappointing that the Queen never goes to the theatre, except when it’s her turn on the royal rota to attend the Royal Variety show which plainly brings her no pleasure.
Stephen Daldry, director of The Audience, has offered to put the play on at Windsor Castle so the Queen might see it in private. She would be advised to take up his kind initiative. It took courage for Mirren to take on her role after so much success playing Her Majesty in the film. Some said she couldn’t possibly repeat that success and she would stain her reputation by doing so. She ignored them and has scaled even greater heights. I would urge the Queen to show the same kind of courage as Mirren and accept Daldry’s invitation.
She might learn a great deal about herself that hadn’t occurred to her. She would undoubtedly learn a great deal about how her subjects perceive her. And she would be entertained royally. Now that wouldn’t be a wasted night.