I have not suddenly come up in the world and been called to answer by our monarch.
But I have had a glimpse into one person’s idea of what goes on in those weekly audiences with the Queen and her current prime minister through the wonderful play The Audience by Peter Morgan. It stars the equally wonderful Helen Mirren, who made her name playing The Queen in the film of the same name, and written also by Peter Morgan. It is obviously a match made in heaven.
For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace – a meeting like no other in British public life – it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses.
The Audience breaks this contract of silence – and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. From Churchill to Cameron, each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.
From young mother to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan Age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.
We are taken very cleverly through some of these audiences with some of the more popular (and less) prime ministers. Interestingly enough not in chronological order, and not all of them feature, Tony Blair for example is missing. We start with John Major, followed by Churchill, played magnificently by Edward Fox, Harold Wilson who I was not sure of initially when he appeared as he was before my time. Then the dour Scot, Gordon Brown, Anthony Eden, the tour de force that is Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and finally James Callaghan.
It also features a young Elizabeth who comes onto the stage as the conscious of the older one. A clever way of seeing how the most famous women in the world might think about what is gone before her and what is to come. There is a lot of tongue in cheek humour and also some very relevant, pertinent and on the money remarks about the state of the government more than the actual royal family itself. It even brings us bang up to date, with references to the death of Margaret Thatcher and also the hospitalisation of the Duke of Edinburgh,and the line replied to John Humphries who asked after him, when she recently opened the new headquarters of the BBC “He’s not ill”.
The staging was very clever, simply two chairs most of the time, and the costume changes were blink and you miss them, a lot of them done on stage as she moves back to a younger queen and forward to an older one.
And all of this I did not have to leave my home city for, as it was broadcast live to a cinema as part of the National Theatre Live programme. The run of the play has now ended, as it was a limited season, but the recording is being shown again in some cinemas as an ‘encore’ performance for those who might have missed it. If you can get along please do.
It was fascinating watching something as a theatre show through the big scree, you could hear all the audience arriving and also then hear the noises from the (yes there were a couple of phones – but no drums) auditorium, but within minutes you forget that you are watching a theatre production as it is all brought to life. It is something which I would consider going to again and I think it is a brilliant concept and idea of bringing theatre to the masses and also for those who perhaps cannot afford or are able to get to London to see such productions. If it chose to come on tour to either of my two local theatres then I would go and see it again, for the sheer joy and experiencing it a different way!
Can you name the Prime Ministers?