‘The Audience’ at TimeLine: Enduring queen receives her ministers with rubber stamp, wit
Review: “The Audience” by Peter Morgan, at TimeLine Theatre. Extended through Dec. 3. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Janet Ulrich Brooks reigns supreme as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s play “The Audience” at TimeLine Theatre. The poised, circumspect, droll and ever so slightly vulnerable performance by one of Chicago’s most versatile actresses provides the constant heart in an otherwise uneven enterprise.
The springboard for Morgan’s sly work is the historical Tuesday meetings between the Queen and the prime minister of the moment – a succession of politicos from Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden down through the decades to Tony Blair and David Cameron.
In these private 20-minute chats, the PM du jour brings the monarch up to speed on affairs of state and presents her with legislation which she is expected – figurehead that she is – to endorse without debate. While the interviews are perhaps mere courtesies, in Morgan’s telling the more familiar Elizabeth grows with the current prime minister, the more personal their digressions become.
Indeed, the repartee can be quite charming as the entrenched Queen, who has seen so many PMs come and go, sometimes steps out of her passive role to gently turn the screws of logic and common sense. Brooks plays the game with just the right touches of deference, assurance, curiosity and intelligence.
Three actors portray all eight of the prime ministers on parade in “The Audience,” a winnowing of the 13 whose terms have paralleled Elizabeth’s life. Perhaps Mark Ulrich simply drew a stodgy lot, but in his likenesses of John Major, Gordon Brown, Eden and Cameron – at least in the performance I saw – he struck few sparks as the Queen’s interlocutor. Viewed in a more positive light, Ulrich’s impersonations might be seen as straight men to Her Majesty’s velvet wit. You can’t take your eyes off Brooks’ patrician Elizabeth, and she never breaks from queenly decorum, even when she’s bringing one of her blustery, self-important visitors up short.
Not the least fascinating session spotlights Margaret Thatcher, played by Carmen Roman with a blend of hauteur and thinly veiled condescension. Brooks’ polished, reserved Queen offers an almost bizarre foil to the forward and declamatory Thatcher, who powers into view, a bolt from the blue dressed in red.
It’s brash and wry flourishes notwithstanding, one can’t help wondering whether “The Audience” plays better in the motherland than it does here in the colonies. In the end, what rescues this production, directed by Nick Bowling, from the monotony of its own trope is the expansive, earthy portrayal of Harold Wilson by Matt DeCaro.
First, however, DeCaro makes an imposing entrance as Churchill, who promptly schools the young Queen on what’s expected of her as the monarchical rubber stamp for whatever Parliament, in the person of the PM, puts in front of her. Churchill, who has guided England through the perils of World War II, isn’t particularly interested in what this young bearer of the crown says or thinks about anything. It’s a good grounding, actually, because every one of Churchill’s successors will share his indifference.
But it’s in his several appearances over the years as the rough-cut but politically brilliant Wilson that DeCaro nearly steals the show from Brooks. Or more to the point, DeCaro and Brooks make such a marvelous odd couple that you hang on every inflection of their scenes together. Queen and PM become, well, almost pals – she the keenly aware and proud descendant of kings, he the practical, plain-spoken man of the people.
Pro forma though Elizabeth’s place on the throne of England may be, Brooks shows us a monarch who believes wholly in her singular and God-given right to occupy that station. In a flashback, we see the young Elizabeth’s coronation – an event of great pomp and grand robes. That signal event also pulls in a character with whom Queen Elizabeth communes from time to time: herself as a little girl. It’s a sweet notion, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t see the kid’s dramatic usefulness. The device of the child seems forced and offers scant insight into the intriguing persona before us.
Jeffrey Kmiec’s efficient set consists of little more than simple but elegant chairs and tables, ample furnishings for the narrative’s sharply focused series of interviews — though a splendid chandelier reminds us that Elizabeth’s home is a palace. Under such a glittering dome even a prime minister would notice that he’s on royal turf.