OnStage Toronto Critic
A REGAL AUDIENCE WITH THE QUEEN
The regal setting of Toronto’s comfortably restored Royal Alexandra Theatre is the perfect venue for Peter Morgan’s The Audience. I had wanted to see this play when I was in the West End a few years back as Helen Mirren’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II was drawing rave reviews. Naturally, I was out of luck as tickets were scarce (much like the Alex’s last production of Come from Away which I did get to see).
When I read The Audience would be staged in Toronto with Canadian actress Fiona Reid in the title role, I vowed to get a ticket anywhere in the theatre as I was not going to be disappointed again. I have always highly admired and respected her stage work here in the city which has ranged from Six Degrees of Separation to Omnium Gatherum AND Death and the Maiden. Ms. Reid’s training is exceptionally extensive that she could read from a phone book and I would be enthralled.
The Audience’s synopsis is intriguing. Every week, Queen Elizabeth II meets with her Prime Minister in the Private Audience Room at Buckingham Palace. Although the conversations of these audiences have never been made public by any prime minister, playwright Peter Morgan treats us to a veritable feast for the ears and eyes as to what might have transpired in these conversations with Her Majesty at various points in her life.
And what a veritable feast for the eyes.
Attention has been paid to the most minute of details in many areas. The striking costumes clearly define each distinct character, yet Ms. Reid’s wardrobes are richly beautiful to ensure the dress matches the hats and shoes and the accompanying handbag. The Coronation gown at the end of the first act dazzles our eyes as the curtain lowers. The setting of the Private Audience room appears palatial and grandiose on the Alex stage. At the beginning of the second act, we enter briefly one of the sitting rooms at Balmoral Castle. This sitting room appeared far more comfortable, even though it was cold and rainy August afternoon, for an audience sitting especially for Prime Minister Harold Wilson (a charismatic performance by Nigel Bennett). We even see a pair of adorable Corgis run across the stage since we know Her Majesty loves her dogs.
You will most certainly have your fill for the ears, but it is important to pay careful attention to the dialogue as it is easy to be distracted.
I must admit that the first audience sitting with Winston Churchill is somewhat slow in pace, but it does pick up quickly once this format is clearly established. On a personal note, there were some favorite audience sittings and moments for me. Prime Minister and ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher did not mince words with anyone, including Her Majesty, and actor Kate Hennig attacks the role of Mrs. Thatcher with powerful force and stride. The Coronation sequence at the end of the first act was resplendent with grandeur. The moments where Her Majesty speaks with her younger self (a highly appealing performance by Naomi Cronk) are especially tender.
In a recent interview in the Toronto Star on January 16, 2017 about the play, Ms. Reid recalls how the rehearsal process was about her “finding ways to get through to the soul of this marvelous person and to find out what makes her get up in the morning.” Ms. Reid is superlatively superb in this role. She captures a majestic, dignified, extraordinary and remarkable woman as Elizabeth II who has endured so much in her life and continues to do so with grace, charm, wit and poise. It is worth the price of a ticket to see how Ms. Reid beautifully captures the various transitions of the British monarch who has been there and will continue to be there.
The Audience continues to February 26 at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, 284 King Street West. Tickets may be purchased at the box office or visit www.mirvish.com for further information. Photo Credit: Dylan Hewlett