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Mirren’s Cool Queen Upstaged by Corgis; Minnelli Shines

March 06, 2013

'The Audience'

Paul Ritter and Helen Mirren as John Major and the Queen in "The Audience" by Peter Morgan. The play begins in 1995, and then switches back and forth in time. Photographer: Johan Persson/Premier PR via Bloomberg

Shakespeare gave us a queen driven to murder and madness. Racine gave us a queen whose incestuous longings ended in suicide. Peter Morgan’s Queen Elizabeth II drinks tea.

Since the beginning of her reign in 1952, the queen has continued the royal tradition of short weekly informal meetings with prime ministers. The monarch’s role is to gain information and offer advice. Morgan’s play “The Audience,” starring Helen Mirren in London, takes an educated and often amusing guess at the content of some of those meetings.

Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne) blows a fuse about an unflattering newspaper article. Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker) blusters pompously about a personal snub from President Barack Obama. David Cameron asks about the Duchess of Cambridge’s baby scan.

The queen is portrayed on stage as wise, witty, astute, businesslike, dignified and caring. That’s great for fans of the monarchy, not so great for fans of theater. When she confronts Sir Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) with his lies to her about the Suez crisis, and suggests that he negotiate with the Egyptian government, he refuses. End of story.

Imagine if she’d offered a glimpse of her garters to get what she wanted like, say, Cleopatra. Or incited Prince Philip to plunge a bloody dagger into Sir Anthony, viz. Lady Macbeth. Now that would have been something.

Instead she seems a bit vexed, and he leaves.

It’s still a great part for Mirren, who played the same role in Peter Morgan’s screenplay “The Queen.”

Wasp Waist

The episodic material is not arranged chronologically, so in the blink of a quick-change we watch her transform from a young brunette with a wasp waist into a gray thick-set old lady, and then back again. Mirren’s physicality is something astonishing.

Greater even than this is her comic timing. John Major tells her that his government is in meltdown.

“I’d like to help you,” she says kindly. “Why don’t you resign?”

The prime ministers are all very fine, especially Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson, who is shown as the Queen’s favorite. They end up bantering like an old married couple.

When Elizabeth appears as an 11-year-old girl (Nell Williams), and the mature monarch then unburdens herself to the child, things are not so successful. As “interior monologue” devices go, it’s pretty clunky.

Director Stephen Daldry keeps the pace swift, even when the talky material runs out of steam in Act 2. Designer Bob Crowley creates a simple backdrop of palace rooms receding through doorways, which works well.

And there’s a big “aah” moment when two frisky corgis appear. Long live the queen. Rating: ***.

Queen Liza

A different monarch -- cabaret queen Liza Minnelli -- gave a tremendous set at the Royal Festival Hall. Backed by a snazzy seven-piece band, she delivered all the old favorites: “Cabaret,” “New York, New York,” “Liza With a Z.”

Her voice was croakier, her breath shorter; she had to sit down a lot. It didn’t matter. The energy was phenomenal, and the mystery that is a Minnelli performance -- turning vulnerability and emotional nakedness into a hundred-minute spell over the audience -- was as strong as ever.

The concert was shoe-horned in as part of a great yearlong festival of 20th-century music called “The Rest Is Noise.” Did the gig have anything to do with “Berlin in the 1930s” as advertised? Not much. Did anyone mind? Not a bit. Rating: *****.

Soprano Shines

Just a quick mention of a singer appearing at Covent Garden. South African soprano Amanda Echalaz has the kind of luscious voice backed by horsepower that makes an ideal Tosca, and the subtle stage skills as well. Her voice glides through the orchestra like a diamond-cutter; her repulsion and fascination with the sadistic Scarpia (Michael Volle, superb) electrifying. She sings the role until March 16.

Rating: ***** for Echalaz; **** for the opera.

“The Audience” is at the Gielgud Theatre. http://www.theaudienceplay.com or +44-844-482-5130

For information about “The Rest Is Noise” festival: http://therestisnoise.southbankcentre.co.uk. Liza Minnelli is next appearing in New York March 13 and 14. Information: http://www.officiallizaminnelli.com

“Tosca” is in repertory at the Royal Opera until March 26. Amanda Echalaz sings the title role until March 16. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Muse highlights include London Weekend by Farah Nayeri and Mark Beech; Robert Heller on rock music; Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com or https://twitter.com/ThompsonWarwick.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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