When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II put the “royal” in Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in 2010, you wonder if she would have known she’d be the main character in a play here six years later.
She’s always seemed so distant, that queen, with her hats and corgis in tow. In Canada, we (or at least I) tend to think of her as merely waving in public, along with Scott Thompson’s hilarious interpretation on Kids in the Hall.
That being said, even if she was never on your radar, you can’t help being drawn to her after a viewing of The Audience, which opened last night at MTC.
The original 2013 production by British screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan starred Helen Mirren and is an adaptation of his script from the 2006 film The Queen, which also featured Mirren in her Academy Award-winning role.
So needless to say, there are big shoes to fill when it comes to bringing it to the stage. Fortunately for us here in Winnipeg the cast – which includes Fiona Reid as Queen Elizabeth II – and crew, including director Christopher Newton and set and costume designer Christina Poddubiuk, do a bang up job. (In particular, my wife was sure to tell me after each scene what fabulous work they did with the Queen’s attire, to which I readily agreed).
Fiona Reid as Queen Elizabeth II (Dylan Hewlett)
The premise revolves around the Tuesday night weekly meetings Her Majesty would have with British Prime Ministers in the “Audience Room” of Buckingham Palace. Through these meetings, we meet eight PMs and are treated to standout performances by Nigel Bennet, who is charming and provokes empathy as Harold Wilson, Benedict Campbell as a bumbling Gordon Brown, and Kate Henning as Margaret Thatcher, whom she plays with a severity that brings in just enough comedy.
Despite this being fiction, you can’t help but feel that you’ve actually been offered a real glimpse into the life of Queen Elizabeth and her PMs, who she’s been entertaining/acting as shrink toward since her early 20s, starting with Winston Churchill.
The exchanges are lively, with enough historical briefings and British wit to keep both history buffs and conversationalists amused. The pacing feels just brisk enough, running at approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Fiona Reid during Elizabeth's coronation (Dylan Hewlett)
Her Royal Highness gains both our sympathies – being a shut-in for her whole existence, while also gaining our ire in certain scenes as she is shown buying into the god-granted grandeur at certain points. It humanizes her, which is about as much as you could ask for in a fictitious account about a woman who always comes across as distant and robotic, whom none of us would ever likely get to meet and converse with. (For what it's worth, I served her youngest son Prince Edward at a charity dinner several years and he was a very kind chap – so nice work on the parenting front Liz and Phil).
And what of Her Majesty's beloved corgis? Well, not to spoil the surprise, but following on the heels of the lab puppy at the end of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, perhaps MTC has hit on something special by putting real live puppies in every play.
The Audience runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Mainstage from November 24 to December 17.
For tickets and show times click here.