Merlin Betts previews The Audience, showing at the Stables Theatre from 8th-16th March 

Did you know that most weeks the Queen has a private meeting with the current Prime Minister, no advisers in attendance, no recording equipment, to discuss recent events and secrets in a red box? Well, she does. This has been happening for the past 80 odd years, and since we’re never told what’s said in these meetings between unelected monarch and unelected PM, Peter Morgan (whose credits include the Netflix series The Crown) decided to write a play about them. Using anecdotal evidence and thorough research, he imagines a selection of the discussions between Queen E and some of our biggest heads of government since Churchill. Collectively, these form The Audience. 

The play offers an intimate look at people, their behaviours, and the strangeness, but also the natural comedy, of this country we live in. In a Guardian article from January 2013, Morgan writes that Queen and PM are: “Two human beings, in flesh and blood, but also…just by having them sitting opposite each other, even in silence, [I] was dealing with the British Constitution, the bone structure of our establishment in its most elemental form.” 

As part of an initiative to introduce new directors at the Stables and new kinds of drama, the theatre will be hosting a production of Morgan’s play from the 8th – 16th March. Frances Viner is director, with Andrew Bruce as producer. I went to a non-costume preview last Tuesday, and, just over three weeks before production, the cast already have things well in hand. Viner focusses on her setting, and her Prime Ministers: she wants to “push them to their poetic limits.” 

The stage is kept almost bare, likely with step ladders, brickwork and lighting rigs clearly visible – a nod to the inner workings of state. Our only decorations will be the well-costumed players, and some fabric sheets occasionally displaying relevant imagery or protecting the Queen’s modesty. Throughout the play, the PMs and different ages of Queen sit at the back of the stage, in view and viewing, judging their predecessors and inheritors, and this fits perfectly with Morgan’s non-linear structure. Making the most of her characters, Viner has each PM enter stage with a unique seat, from newspaper stack to deck chair, and an unusual musical introduction, from Heartbreak Hotel for Anthony Eden, to a Frank Sinatra number for John Major.

Tony Blair, whom Morgan included despite the fact that friends and colleagues “begged me not to put Blair in it,” barely warrants a mention except as one of the Queen’s memories, so Viner has the Queen speak his few lines to herself. Blair, to Elizabeth, merely echoes Anthony Eden’s failures in war. Both looked the part, neither filled the role. Viner seems to agree with director Stephen Frears before her…better not to give Blair any more time in the limelight than necessary. 

Features Editor at HIP, Simone Witney, was also in attendance and said “I’m a completely unpolitical person, but I found the play utterly engaging, even in its unpolished form.” Viner’s actors proved totally capable of portraying the characters’ various emotional states and mannerisms. Sometimes naivety, sometime cynicism, pride, quiet terror, raw humour…this play, and its take on the UK, are not to be missed.

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