You can tell British playwright Peter Morgan is a loyal royal subject by the way, and the frequency, in which he writes about Queen Elizabeth II. Morgan earned an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for The Queen, which won Helen Mirren an Oscar for playing the title role; later, Morgan wrote this play about the weekly private meetings between Elizabeth and her prime ministers, for which Mirren (again) won an Olivier and a Tony Award in the royal role. Later still, Morgan used The Audience as the pitch for his Netflix series, The Crown, which just might score an Emmy for its Elizabeth, Claire Foy.
But if Morgan considers the monarchy “an absurd anachronism,” as a 2006 New York Times profile pegged to The Queen asserted he does, he appears to have a real fealty to the monarch of the last 65 years. In The Audience, Morgan portrays Elizabeth from just before her accession to the throne up to nearly the present day, and thus, so does the play’s leading actor—here, filling Mirren’s sensible shoes, stalwart TimeLine ensemble member Janet Ulrich Brooks.
Nick Bowling’s production actually provides similar opportunities for his supporting cast. Where Stephen Daldry’s original staging in London and New York had each prime minister as essentially cameo roles for individual actors, Bowling’s production reduces the cast size from 18 to seven (including the two child actors who alternate as the young Princess Elizabeth, who interacts with her adult self in a hoary device). Thus Matt DeCaro gets to embody Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, and Mark Ulrich essays John Major, Gordon Brown, Anthony Eden and David Cameron. Carmen Roman is stuck with just the thankless Margaret Thatcher, in addition to the minor roles all three also play.
Yet by stripping away the lavish production values, large cast and dramatic costume changes of Daldry’s production, Bowling also exposes the thinness of Morgan’s characterizations. Morgan—who’s also known for Frost/Nixon, another example of coloring between the lines as well as inside of them—is engaging in liberal conjecture and invention here, since the real-life conversations between the queen and her PMs are intentionally unwitnessed and unrecorded. The playwright uses them to clunkily convey some of the history covered by Elizabeth’s reign—there are plenty of “as Your Highness knows” and “let me remind you, Mr. Blair” style interjections of fact.
But as a portrait of the queen, or even of the office, The Audience is timid. Morgan portrays Her Royal Highness as benevolent, engaged, well-read, occasionally conflicted, and mostly boring. The cast is quite impressive in its transformations, but the reliable Brooks doesn’t get the sartorial support that Mirren did; she barely even seems to get a change of wigs when playing Elizabeth from her twenties to her eighties, which underlines the play’s own repetitive dullness. Stripped of the royal frippery, The Audience is a collection of fine performances in search of a play.
TimeLine Theatre Company. By Peter Morgan. Directed by Nick Bowling. With Janet Ulrich Brooks. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.