LONDON (AP) -- What is the point of a monarch?
"The Audience," Peter Morgan's new play about Queen Elizabeth II, suggests that in a democracy such as Britain, one role of the sovereign may be as unofficial counselor and therapist to the country's elected leaders.
The play stars Helen Mirren as Her Majesty, and focuses on the queen's relationship with the 12 prime ministers of her 60-year reign. Its title denotes the weekly meetings the two hold at Buckingham Palace. Intended to be completely candid and utterly confidential, they are a chance for politicians to brief the monarch on government business -- and for the queen to offer gentle advice.
"The Audience" is a clever, deft and sentimental play that has humor, pathos and even live corgis.
It seems destined to be a major -- but not universal -- crowd-pleaser, and garnered rave reviews from several British newspapers Wednesday. The Times and Daily Telegraph gave it five stars out of five, with the Telegraph's Charles Spencer declaring Mirren "magnificent" and The Times' Libby Purves calling the play "funny and truthful, good-hearted, spiky, full of surprises."
It's a superb vehicle for Mirren, who won an Academy Award in 2007 for playing Elizabeth onscreen in "The Queen" -- also written by Morgan -- and whose reprise of the role is one of the most-anticipated performances in London this year.
She has said she was reluctant to don the crown again. "I didn't want to become the actress who plays the queen, if you know what I mean," Mirren said this week. "I don't think that's very nice for me, and it's not very nice for the queen."
We don't know what the queen thinks, but theatergoers will be glad Mirren changed her mind.
With understated power, Mirren gives Elizabeth a sharp mind and wry sense of humor beneath a steely shell of dignity and duty. Mirren, who is 67, takes Elizabeth from uncertain ingenue to wise octogenarian while hinting at the core of solitude that comes from being in a role that few others can comprehend.
"When I walk into a room, heads fail to turn," says the resolutely uncharismatic Conservative Prime Minister John Major (Paul Ritter), in one of the play's well-honed one-liners.
"How lovely!" sighs the queen.
The movie "The Queen" was set after the 1997 death of Princess Diana -- a trauma for both country and monarchy -- and showed the queen adrift from public opinion, guided by savvy young Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In "The Audience," it's the queen who does most of the guiding, except in the early days, when a faltering but still forceful Winston Churchill (Edward Fox) gives the inexperienced monarch a key piece of advice -- never let them see you struggle.
Ably directed by the stage and screen veteran Stephen Daldry, the play leaps back and forth in time in a number of short scenes, and has surprising omissions. Blair, one of the longest-serving recent prime ministers, does not appear onstage, and is referred to only briefly. (Morgan, who has written three film and television dramas about Blair, may well be tired of him).
The play suggests that the queen was most fond of the less obviously confident and successful prime ministers. She gives kindly advice to Major and Gordon Brown -- both overshadowed by their charismatic predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and Blair respectively. And she forms a bond with Harold Wilson, a down-to-earth Labour leader with whom the monarch strikes up an unlikely rapport.
Standouts in a strong cast are Ritter as a touchingly insecure and humane Major, and Richard McCabe as Wilson, whose gentle, teasing friendship with the queen brings out the best in both of them.
Haydn Gwynne also makes a strong impression as the forceful Thatcher, distinctly un-awed in the presence of her sovereign.
No minutes are kept of the meetings between prime ministers and monarchs, so Morgan's script is based on imagination as well as research. It is a royal fantasy, and some viewers will fail to be swayed by Morgan's depiction of a monarch who is -- in the words of Wilson -- "basically a leftie," prepared to rebuke Thatcher over her stance on apartheid and caution a prime minister about the risks of entering a Middle East War. (The PM is Anthony Eden and the conflict the 1956 Suez Crisis, but the parallel to Blair and Iraq is resonant.)
The whole thing is often funny and ultimately affecting, but is it realistic? Who knows? For many, that will be the appeal of the play. Morgan imagines his way into two secret spaces: the inside of that palace meeting room and -- more tantalizingly -- the inside of the queen's head, and her heart.
"The Audience" runs at the Gielgud Theatre in London until June 15. The June 13 performance will be broadcast live to movie theaters around Britain, and on varying dates to cinemas around the world.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
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