The Audience — A Royal Flush

Opening Night   The Audience — A Royal Flush
 
A behind-the-scenes look at the opening night of The Audience, starring Helen Mirren.
Helen Mirren
Helen Mirren Photo by Joan Marcus

I say we dispense with these silly elections and hand over all Best Actress prizes to Helen Mirren for her brave, majestic, nuanced portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience, Peter Morgan's imagined interplay between England's monarch and the 12 prime ministers she accumulated in 63 years. "The Dirty Dozen," she called them. What say ye, Audience?

The audience attending The Audience March 8 when it bowed at the regal-worthy Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre with its glamorous gold-leaf trim clamorously agreed — and would put her in Parliament had they the power. Her ovation was deafening.

Critics can carp, but what it comes down to is a much-loved, much-respected actress gamely approximating the queen of her generation and ours, who, come Sept. 9, will pass her great-great-grandmother, Victoria, as the UK's longest-reigning monarch.

A West London native, Dame Helen admitted she was abundantly aware it was her queen she was playing, but it's a burden she was prepared to lift. "It's our job as purveyors of drama to do that lifting. That's what our job is, really. I've always felt we're just doing yet another portrait in a long history of kings and queens. When we did 'The Queen,' it was radical to portray a living monarch. Now, it's commonplace." Yes, this is not Dame Helen's first time at the Elizabethan rodeo. Far, far from it. She premiered this performance on an appreciative home turf in 2013 and copped the Olivier for it. Seven years earlier, she broke through royal barricades and presented in a feature-length film, a contemporary Elizabeth, made human and accessible by her public grieving for her estranged daughter-in-law, Diana. "The Queen" got her the Oscar.

Simultaneously, for HBO, she was turning in an Emmy-winning Elizabeth I that year. Her fine work for the Houses of Windsor and Tudor never created a blip on the Buckingham Palace screen, and Dame Helen is fine with that. "I never felt insecure about what the royal family or the people at the palace would think of it because I never moved in those circles," she said. "What I was more concerned about was the media. The media in Britain are obsessed with the royal family. Anything to do with the royal family they just jump on, so I knew that, in talking about the piece, promoting it, doing interviews, I'd have to be incredibly careful about what was said."

The Audience is the second straight play — that is to say, nonmusical — to open on Broadway within the past four days with a metropolis cast of 18 (the other show was Larry David's Fish in the Dark). Four or five P.M.s get no stage time at all, but all 12 assemble for the concluding group shot of the queen and her ministers.

Writer Morgan, who was Oscar-nominated for "The Queen" and Olivier-nominated for The Audience, picked his prime ministers with care, noted Dame Helen. "The interesting thing is that Peter didn't go for the obvious prime ministers — well, he did maybe with Churchill, but, instead of having a big scene with Tony Blair, who would be the obvious choice as the prime minister of recent history that America would understand and remember, he went instead with John Major, who's not so well-known and who didn't have a triumphant or particularly historic time in office.

"Each prime minister has literally 20 minutes, less sometimes, more like 15 minutes. It's not like you come on, you have a little scene, then you go off and then come back on, and you have your big scene, then you go off. This and that have happened to the character, and you have a psychological development. This play is not like that at all. They come on, they do their piece, it's very intense, they are center stage, it's all about them, then it's over. So it's very different for American actors. British actors are used to that. It's a strangely written play in that way."

The cast is an Anglo-American amalgam, carefully assembled by casting director Daniel Swee. From the original London cast came Rufus Wright doubling as David Cameron and Tony Blair, Geoffrey Beevers as The Queen's Equerry and overemphatic scene-setter, Michael Elwyn as a distinguished but flustered Anthony Eden, and, reprising his Olivier-winning work, Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson.

Richard McCabe and Helen Mirren
Richard McCabe and Helen Mirren Photo by Joan Marcus

Yanks fill in the ranks, much to Dame Helen's delight. "They're absolutely brilliant. That's what I found when I did A Month in the Country. It taught me a huge respect for American actors — in particular, New York American actors. It's their incredible, joyful work ethic. It doesn't seem to be a burden to them. They arrive off book, their accents are immaculate for the first day's rehearsal, and then they proceed with such incredible, admirable energy and commitment. British actors are much lazier." "The Iron Lady," with Meryl Streep as an Oscar-winning Margaret Thatcher, would have been a good training film, but she missed it, "which is very wrong of me."

She has nothing but praise, though, for the Thatcher warpath that Judith Ivey wages on stage. "My husband [film director Taylor Hackford] worked with her on 'The Devil's Advocate' and just adored her, thought she was brilliant. And, of course, she is. It's fascinating to watch her, in her very American way, wrestling with the nature of the writing. The play is not written as a deep psychological study. Where American actors are so brilliant is very often in mining these psychological portraits of characters. They love the psychological process. This is a step away from that."

Ivey, who won one of her two Tonys playing a Brit back in her steamier past, spent hour after hour listening to Thatcher speeches to find her voice. The result comes out harsh, metallic and with just a tinge of Hermione Gingold. "Trying to find her voice was the hardest part. That was really hard," she said. "But the rest was fun. Thatcher was just a bitch, and it's fun to play the tough ones, that kind of 'I'm-right-and-you're-wrong' lady. The scene gets a perfect set-up, too. As written, it's a work of genius. There were a lotta rewrites here and there, but that scene wasn't touched."

And, yes, she saw Streep's Thatcher. "Streep was great, and she does the real deal. It's actually creepy during the older Thatcher years. Meryl is that accurate."

Wright, who originated the David Cameron role in London, acquired a new P.M. crossing the pond: Tony Blair. "When plans were announced to bring the play over here, there was a bit of pressure put on Peter because the American public know Blair, like him, consider him 'a big star.' The feeling was that adding Blair could anchor the Suez Canal story a bit more, so they decided to put him in. Peter deliberately left him out of the London production for reasons unknown. I suspect it was because he had done three films with Blair already, and he'd had enough."

Dakin Matthews, who did a dandy Dixie politico in The Best Man, is no less effective at blustery British statesmen — maybe the ultimate in that category: Winston Churchill, an old warhorse trying to override the unseasoned 22-year-old Elizabeth.

Mirren at the opening night party
Mirren at the opening night party Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

He also manages a very plausible physical facsimile of the great man. "He left about 40 books around and a lot of videos, so I did my homework," the actor said. "Peter really knows that world and he can write scenes that are comic as well as serious."

Director Stephen Daldry mustered a smile, despite the fact there's no rest for the weary. Now that he has this London production up and running on Broadway, he turns all of his attention now to his other, a revival of David Hare's end-of-the-affair drama, Skylight, which, starring Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, will open April 2. "It's a very intense moment in my life right now," he admitted. "We have The Audience tonight and the very first preview of Skylight on Friday. Skylight is one of the most disturbing pieces of work you can ever experience in the theatre, and The Audience has one of the most brilliant performances Helen Mirren has ever given."

Dylan Baker, as the first prime minister out of the chute, John Major, caught himself beaming up a storm at the curtain call. "These last three months have been total joy for me, getting cast in this job, then rehearsing and being able to perform it. The Audience is what I needed in my life right now — to work with Helen Mirren, who is a jewel to the theatre. I say, 'Come on over, Brits!' Here's Helen and four of the prime ministers. Each one of them has been so giving, so much fun to be around."

Although the play makes the point the queen must be rigidly neutral on all occasions and can't admit to a favorite prime minister, Morgan's script seems to stack the deck toward Harold Wilson and throws him a helluvah arc for McCabe to act.

"We have three scenes as opposed to the other Prime Ministers," McCabe pointed out, "so our relationship can develop. Actually, I think it's improved since we did it in London in that we start out far frostier now. There's really an antipathy between us at the beginning, and then it develops into this warm friendship that is actually quite moving at the end. It's a great journey that we get to go on, really."

Dame Helen gave some serious pondering when asked who her own favorite Prime Minister was — and then her answer came with an asterisk. "Not at the time, but very retroactively," the actress carefully qualified. "I very much respect John Major, although I was never a conservative and I would never have voted for him. But I do think John Major was a very decent person and a very smart person.

"You know when Tony Blair came into office, there was a celebration, a bit of relief that was a change, but they are all flawed, so I'd not like to land on any of them."

Rufus Wright, Judith Ivey, Helen Mirren, Dakin Matthews, Michael Elwyn and Michael Rudko
Rufus Wright, Judith Ivey, Helen Mirren, Dakin Matthews, Michael Elwyn and Michael Rudko Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

This is Dame Helen's third Broadway outing. She debuted 20 years ago as Natalia Patrovna in A Month in the Country opposite Ron Rifkin and F. Murray Abraham, and she came back in 2001 to do Dance of Death with Ian McKellen and David Strathairn.

A Month in the Country just had its first revival since then, and she took some umbrage with The Times' notice. "I was a rather sniffy review of the play. They didn't like the Turgenev play. In fact, they didn't like Turgenev's work. I think it's one of the greatest psychological explorations. To me, it's so much better — I mean, I love Chekhov, but it's more precise and beautiful than Chekhov. It's much more subtle. "The two times that I've experienced Broadway were very special experiences to me — because of the Broadway community itself and the history of Broadway. You feel like you're becoming part of an incredible theatrical experience."

She confessed that she had to rest up for a Broadway engagement. "The notion of a Broadway run first came up really, when we were still in London. Once we started getting a response from Americans who came to see the play in London and really loved it, the thought was we might move it here, but I wasn't ready to do that for a good 12 months, which is what I wanted — a 12-month break. They said okay."

Of course, for Mirren, who will turn 70 on July 26, a "break" means making only three films: "Women in God," which is poised for release, and two others that are in post-production: "Eye in the Sky" and "Trumbo." In the latter, she dons quite different headgear than a crown to play Hollywood's "Mad Hatter," right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who here butts heads with blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, played by the new Tony and Emmy winner Bryan Cranston.

Among The Audience's first-night audience were two royals checking out Current Events: Henry VIII and his axed, Anne Boleyn (a.k.a., Nathaniel Parker and Lydia Leonard of the two-part historical, Wolf Hall, opening April 9 at the Winter Garden).

There was a nice turnout from the It Shoulda Been You company: Tyne Daly, David Burtka and hubby, Neil Patrick Harris, and book writer-lyricist Brian Hargrove and his hubby and debuting Broadway director David Hyde Pierce. It's due April 14.

Also: Chandler Williams now of "The Blacklist": director Walter Bobbie (looking like Sir Richard Attenborogh behind a beard), Charlotte d'Amboise (bound for Chicago to play Mrs. Mullins to Steven Pasquale's Billy Bigelow), director Joe Mantello (readying Airline Highway for the last night of Tony eligibility), Emily Mortimer of "Newsroom," David Geffen, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, writer-director Tony Gilroy, Nick Westrake and Michael Feinstein, staying busy despite a bum foot.

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