To dramatize the past 65 years’ history of Great Britain, you only need to focus on that nation’s queen, Elizabeth II. That is precisely what playwright Peter Morgan has done in his Olivier and Tony Award-winning hit, The Audience, premiering locally Thursday at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
“Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne for seven decades. The collective history of that nation is within her,” says Lou Jacob, who directs the Maltz production. “And each prime minister, each decade, each event becomes more and more a part of her.”
Morgan – who also featured Elizabeth in his acclaimed 2006 film The Queen – tells her story onstage through a series of audiences, weekly briefings that she had with the passing parade of prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron.
The play, says Jacob, is a “very funny, very clever, very witty evening that is historically interesting, and emotionally very potent. We get to see a very human side of the queen, because you’re seeing behind the woman towards something deeper about her.”
Jacob previously directed Red, a biographical drama of expressionist painter and firebrand Mark Rothko, at the Maltz. When the offer to direct The Audience came to him, Jacob was not familiar with the script but, he says, “I was immediately intrigued by the subject matter, because I love things of an historical nature.” Still, it was risky to sign on to the project without any idea who he could attract to play the tour de force role of Queen Elizabeth, a part originated by Helen Mirren both in London and on Broadway.
“It isn’t too hard to see is that you need great actors to pull this off,” says Jacob. “When you come right down to it there are going to be very few people who can do and be all the things that this actress will need to do. So that’s going to whittle it down.”
He had heard of Karen MacDonald, a Boston-based stage performer with such major roles as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Long Day’s Journey into Night’s Mary Tyrone to her credit.
“I start by doing my due diligence, making my list of who I know who’s out there, based on my knowledge, my connections, my network,” says Jacob. MacDonald landed on a short list of actresses that he reached out to about the role. But those of the caliber he needed are rarely sitting idly at home.
“I was working on a play, I was in the middle of eight-hour-a-day rehearsals,” recalls MacDonald. “So there was no way I could get to New York to audition.” As is happening more and more frequently these days. MacDonald made and submitted a video of herself. “They asked for specific things, sections of four different scenes from the play. I did it on my iPad,” she says. “My husband read the PMs, including Margaret Thatcher.”
Describing what he was seeking, Jacob says, “It has to be, first of all, a kind of person with the kind of foundational theater experience that makes them something of a warrior, because they have to do a lot and barely leave the stage. And change costumes and change ages and all that. I needed a theater animal who had the kind of experience that wouldn’t be fazed by the range of things that has to happen in the sort of tour de force nature of the play.”
He found what he needed in MacDonald, who quickly hit the books to research Elizabeth II. As she says of the longest-reigning monarch in British history, “She was thrust into this circumstance, her life changed when her uncle abdicated the throne. And then when her father became king, I think she literally witnessed her father die an early death because of the pressure.” At the age of 25, she was crowned queen of the United Kingdom.
With The Audience, Morgan really humanizes Elizabeth. “Because we’re also imagining, as the playwright does, the audience — whether it is an audience with her prime minister or an audience with Mrs. So-and-So, who wrote a letter and the queen has granted her an audience,” says MacDonald. “The audience is always private, there’s no one else there. It is not recorded in any way what was said — nothing. It is a completely private moment.”
Such an information vacuum gave playwright Morgan great license to fabricate what occurred during those audiences. “What was Mr. Churchill’s first meeting with the young queen like? What was it like to be in the room with Margaret Thatcher when the gloves were off? What happens when she’s sitting across the room from a prime minister who is definitely going through some kind of crisis?” asks MacDonald. “Yeah, it is a playwright’s dream and, therefore, kind of an actor’s dream to be in a series of two-person scenes with such high-powered characters.”
MacDonald will be portraying Queen Elizabeth, but not, she emphasizes, impersonating her. “No, I think that most actors would tell you that that’s sort of the road to nowhere. Because of YouTube you can see live film, you can listen to her voice, but you need to take what you see and then synthesize that through yourself as an actor and see what comes out.
“I don’t look like Queen Elizabeth, so what? That isn’t why Lou cast me.”
The challenge for Jacob, he says, is “keeping the spell going, because of the way she does change through memory and sort of emotional chronology. And bringing the audience into a world, the world of Buckingham Palace, but in a poetic way. And getting them to feel, when it’s all done, that they’ve lived in her shoes.”
So why should we go see The Audience at the Maltz, Karen? “Well, when else do you get to spend two hours with Queen Elizabeth and with many of her famous prime ministers?” she shoots back. “And experience a very human story that might be disguised as a history lesson, but is much more than that. It really is about looking at the other side of the way that she lives and how she gets by as a person.
“How has she done it? She’s kept herself curious, that’s what I think is the most interesting thing about her as a person. She still is a curious person at 90 years old. So why not be curious yourself about spending some time with this person?”
THE AUDIENCE, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Oct. 27–Nov. 6. Tickets: $56 and up. Call: 561-575-2223.