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Read: The Audience is a fascinating look at the woman behind the majesty

For the past sixty-seven years Queen Elizabeth II has sat on the throne of the United Kingdom. She has reigned so long that she is the only Monarch many of us have known. She is therefore very familiar to us, yet at the same time she is inscrutable. Rarely has she given an interview or stated her own true feelings publicly. Stoicism, decorum and duty are at the centre of her public facade.

It’s not surprising we are curious about what this matriarch is like behind closed doors. We get occasional glimpses and ‘unofficial’ titbits about her. Courtiers and others let slip she’s a great mimic and a loving grandmother. Others say she was remote from her children. But still, the public at large doesn’t know the real Elizabeth. 

In The Audience, playwright Peter Morgan attempts to peek behind the manicured image of the Queen. To do this, we are presented with a series of audiences with most of the British Prime Ministers who have served the Queen during her long reign. 

Covering six decades of history is ambitious, it’s also quite a challenge since the entire play is a complete fiction. No one, other than the Queen and each individual Prime Minister actually knows what takes place in these audiences. In some ways this is an advantage because it gives Morgan the freedom to experiment with well-known characters and speculate on their insecurities and even the vanities they try to keep hidden from the public. 

Despite the fiction, this was a fascinating play.  It reinforced the role the Queen has had in history, all the knowledge she must be privy to; all the famous people she has met; all the secrets she has to keep to herself. It is a reminder that she had no choice to be Queen – a role she was literally born to play. In this production we are given a hint of why she has this huge sense of duty and why she has never deviated from it. We also see her as a young girl struggling with the impending obligation that would snatch away any alternative life she might have chosen for herself. It is compelling and in someways sad.

Auckland Theatre Company have re-created a reasonably good version of this play. Casting Theresa Healey as the Queen works. There may have been a moment where she was momentarily overwhelmed by the role – Queen Elizabeth is after all the most famous woman on the planet – but Healey carries the play beautifully.

As a production though, this version of The Audience was not perfect. One or two actors had great trouble keeping their accents on track and that proved a little distracting. The first half of the play flowed well, but after the intermission it seemed to drag a little.  This may have been because the most powerful scene came at the end of the first act.

That scene was a re-creation of the moment Elizabeth was anointed at her Coronation.  It was the most moving and powerfully emotional moment I have seen in a theatre. It was simply done and exquisitely beautiful. Healey was at her strongest as she spoke of this divine experience while Handel’s Zadok the Priest played out around her.

This one intimate vignette explained everything about Queen Elizabeth – her devotion to service, her sense of duty, her belief that being Queen is so much bigger than herself. It all happened in the very moment this very religious woman was anointed with holy oil. She pledged herself to God and to service. Even for an atheist like me, the symbolism and the sheer beauty of that moment was overwhelming. 

Nothing in the second act could compare to that – in my view, it should have been the final scene of the play. 

That being said, The Audience deserves to be seen. Whether you are a royalist or not, you cannot deny the role Queen Elizabeth II has played in history and while this work is fiction, it gives us a chance to glimpse the woman behind the majesty. 

THE AUDIENCE

14 – 23 May 2019

ASB Waterfront Theatre 

Bookings and Information  – click here

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