You could say with some justification that the United Kingdom’s monarchy is an outmoded, irrelevant part of that government which it can hardly afford. True, but it seems so civilized compared to the mess that we have made of our own political system.
So in the midst of our highly contentious presidential campaign, come eavesdrop on Queen Elizabeth II, as seen in Peter Morgan’s pomp and circumstance-filled stage play, The Audience, now on view at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
Morgan also wrote the 2006 film The Queen, which focused in on a moment of crisis during her reign when the charismatic and much-loved Princess Diana dies. In contrast, The Audience is built of snapshots from Elizabeth’s 60-plus years on the throne, as seen from the lens of her brief, weekly meetings – audiences – with her various prime ministers.
The Maltz, one of the first regional theaters to snag the performance rights to The Audience since its acclaimed Broadway run two seasons ago, lavishes on the play the same care, craft and polish that it gives to its musical productions. Nevertheless, musicals are apparently what many of its theatergoers prefer, judging from the numerous walkouts at intermission on opening night. Still, the Maltz deserves credit for persevering with plays in its seasons (and notably for selecting the even more challenging, Pulitzer-winning drama Distracted, due this winter.)
One of the challenges, of course, is casting the queen, a role so closely associated with Oscar and Tony Award winner Helen Mirren. On Broadway, the luminous actress turned the play into a star vehicle with a memorable performance that made the production into an event that was all about her. At the Maltz, Boston-based Karen MacDonald is more than up to the assignment, which includes portraying the monarch at various ages, but her understated approach allows more of the play to shine through, resulting in an ensemble effort alongside the many distinctive actors who are her prime ministers.
Morgan craftily presents these various audiences non-chronologically, for several dramatic reasons, but the effect is to showcase the chameleon-like skills of the actress playing the queen. MacDonald is exacting in the detail work of her metamorphoses, changing from a fresh-eyed 24-year-old on the eve of her coronation to the 90-ish veteran queen fighting to stay awake as she listens to David Cameron drone on and many stages in between. Aiding the theatrical illusion are the period-defining costumes by Wade Laboissonniere along with Gerard Kelly’s wigs.
Not all the PMs are equal, either historically or in Morgan’s rendering. At one point the queen acknowledges that she had a favorite – Harold Wilson – and the Maltz audience is likely to agree, as embodied by Rod McLachlan, playing a man with an uncanny photographic memory which he loses before our eyes. Other standouts include Colin McPhillamy as a condescending Winston Churchill – Elizabeth’s first prime minister – who instructs her on how these weekly audiences are supposed to work. And Henny Russell comes on strong as nails-tough Margaret Thatcher, fuming over the queen’s insulting description of her, leaked to The Times of London.
Director Lou Jacob (The Maltz’s Mark Rothko bioplay Red) knits The Audience’s many scenes into a cohesive whole by trusting Morgan’s text. One need not be a student of British history to grasp the personal and political importance of these one-on-one chats, but their gradual cumulative power is undeniable. Jacob allows his staging to verge on the static, but the words and the performances more than compensate for the lack of action.
THE AUDIENCE, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Rd., Jupiter. Through Sunday, Nov. 6. $56 and up. 561-575-2223.