At the TimeLine Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—“The Audience” at the TimeLine Theatre will give special pleasure to expatriate Britishers in the audience and anglophile American viewers who follow British modern history in general and the royal family in particular. Those with no interest in such English matters can take some comfort in a stage full of good performances and some occasional dramatic moments and droll dialogue.
The 2013 Peter Morgan play consists of a series of weekly conversations (the Audiences of the title) between Queen Elizabeth II and her prime ministers, or at least most of them. The audiences consist of exchanges between the queen and eight of the 12 prime ministers who cumulatively served the queen over more than six decades. The audiences were conducted in private and no records of the conversations were kept, so “The Audience” is made up of a mosaic of encounters imagined by the playwright in no particular chronological order. The queen talks to familiar political figures like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher and more unfamiliar prime ministers, at least from the American prospective, like Gordon Brown, John Major, and David Cameron. The PMs who didn’t make the cut were Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath, and James Callaghan.
Peter Morgan obviously is a great admirer of Queen Elizabeth and one leaves the theater witnessing the behavior of a monarch of great dignity, moral character, fortitude, wisdom, intelligence, and some droll wit. The prime ministers, on the other hand, tend to be cranky, weepy, strident, and in the case of John Major, inept.
Because the playwright invented the dialogue, though within a realistic historical context, one might expect, and hope for, some dishing on the many scandals that swept through the monarchy during the last part of the 20th century. While there are a few brief references to troubles within the royal household, there is no exploration of the sex revelations and related uproar that threatened to topple the monarchy. The tragic figure of Elizabeth’s sister Margaret makes no appearance. The inflammatory relationship between Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher (Carmen Roman) is limited to one scene when that conflict of wills could have made a sizzling full length and more absorbing drama by itself.
The play is structured as a series of vignettes. A starchy equerry (David Lively), resplendent in medals and uniform, serves as narrator, describing the opulent room in Buckingham Palace where the audiences take place, which at the TimeLine are reduced to four chairs, small tables, and a giant chandelier. The physical absence of royal splendor robs the production of regal atmosphere.
The audiences are interrupted from time to time by short interludes taking Elizabeth back to her girlhood with her Scottish governess and sometimes talking with her adolescent self. These interludes serve little dramatic purpose except perhaps to allow the cast to make some rapid costume changes off stage. The male PMs are played by Matt DeCaro (Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair) and Mark Ulrich (John Major, Gordon Brown, Anthony Eden, and David Cameron). The character transformations effected by both De Caro and Ulrich are amazing.
The original production in England and its Broadway transfer were personal triumphs for Helen Mirren as the queen. The TimeLine casts Janet Ulrich Brooks as Elizabeth and she does a resourceful job, being on stage virtually the entire production. Her changes between young queen and elderly lady are not very clear-cut but in the character’s middle years she is splendid, a savvy lady who often displays more smarts than the prime ministers she meets every week.
In her two most effective scenes, Elizabeth breaks out of her reserve to declaim against attacks on the royal house and to deliver an emotion-laden description of her lifelong devotion to her stewardship of the monarchy. Elizabeth is always conscious of the traditions surround the majesty of her royal position. Her favorite prime minister is Harold Wilson, but she recoils in displeasure when the exuberant Wilson touches her during an impromptu photo session (one never comes into physical contact with the queen, ever!).
Otherwise, Elizabeth’s demeanor is confined to dry wit and sharp inquiries about national and international policy, which arouses conflict with the prime minster of the moment. But the queen is bound to support the government in power, no matter what her personal feelings and greater common and ethical sense might prefer.
Jeff Kmiec designed the functional set, Theresa Ham the period costumes, Katie Cordts the many wigs, Julie Mack the lighting, and Andrew Hansen the sound. The technicians should eliminate the annoying buzz that apparently comes from the lights above the stage. Under dialect coach Elise Kauzlaric, the assorted accents sound authentic.
Director Nick Bowling keeps the 11 scenes and their interludes flowing well and the performances by DeCaro and Ulrich are all quality, especially DeCaro’s Churchill and Harold Wilson and Ulrich’s Anthony Eden. Morgan has carved out distinct personalities for each of them, especially the intense Margaret Thatcher. It’s a question, however, how much the average TimeLine playgoer will be interested. It’s like English audiences being asked to care about a historical play portraying American political figures like Woodrow Wilson, James Buchanan, Gerald Ford, and Grover Cleveland.
-The show gets a rating of three stars.
“The Audience” runs through November 12 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $54. Call 777 281 8463 or visit timelinetheatre.com.
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