Peter Morgan struck box-office gold with his movie The Queen. He’s likely to do so again with this play based on the private weekly audience given by the monarch to the prime minister. But I’d say that in both cases, PM owes a great deal to HM: in other words, Helen Mirren, who once again gives a faultless performance that transcends mere impersonation to endow the monarch with a sense of inner life and a quasi-Shakespearean aura of solitude.
As a dramatist, however, Morgan faces two problems. One is that no one ever knows what is said at these weekly tête-à-têtes since they are un-minuted. The other, more serious, is that in a constitutional monarchy, the Queen has no authority to contradict policy: simply, in the words of Walter Bagehot in the 19th century, “to be consulted, to advise and to warn”, which would seem to rule out dramatic conflict. I’d say that Morgan counters these problems with varying degrees of success.
In a play that zigzags back and forth over 60 years and shows eight of the 12 prime ministers the Queen has dealt with (though not Tony Blair), Morgan is obviously free to speculate about what was said. He does this entertainingly enough, showing the Queen often acting as a surrogate shrink to her harassed ministers: she offers a hanky to a tearful John Major (a very funny Paul Ritter) and counsels sleep and rest to a paranoid Gordon Brown (a highly plausible Nathaniel Parker).
But Morgan’s right to exercise dramatic licence goes way over the top in his portrait of Harold Wilson. This is no fault of Richard McCabe, who plays Wilson with a nice pawky humour. But I cannot believe that Wilson, the most calculating of politicians and an Oxford don before he acquired power, would ever have breezed into Buckingham Palace posing as a working-class “ruffian”; and, however chummy he later became, I find it unlikely that he would have cheeked the Queen about her Germanic origins, saying that at Balmoral, instead of the bagpipes, “you should have someone playing the accordion in lederhosen”.
The more serious question, however, is how you inject conflict into a situation that, constitutionally, precludes it. Morgan does this in artful ways by showing the Queen using her position to speak truth to power. In 1952, as a nervous young monarch, she stands up to an ageing Churchill (Edward Fox, gallantly taking over the role at short notice). And in 1956 she smokes out the pretence of Anthony Eden (an excellently twitchy Michael Elwyn) that our invasion of Suez was a response to Israeli aggression rather than the result of military and diplomatic collusion.
But, in demonstrating the Queen’s practical wisdom, Morgan limits the scope for conflict; and only twice, in a perky panorama of political history, did I feel the dramatic temperature rise. Once was in the 1992 scene when John Major relays Princess Diana’s scathing views about the monarchy and puts the Queen on the back foot by questioning royal expenditure. The other was the moment when Mrs Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne in a tearing temper) storms into the palace to attack, with some justice, leaks over royal dislike of her policies. But the virtue of this scene is that it leads to the one serious political debate over Thatcher’s determined refusal to apply sanctions to South Africa.
However hard Morgan tries, the evening can’t help but seem like a series of revue sketches: a kind of “1956 And All That”. What holds it together is Stephen Daldry’s adroit production and Helen Mirren’s luminous performance, which, even in a non-linear script, pins down the Queen’s steady growth in confidence and authority. Daldry has had the witty idea of allowing many of the costume changes to take place on stage so that we see Mirren, like an upmarket Gypsy Rose Lee, shedding her layers of costume: in a trice she moves from being Major’s solid, elderly comforter to the lissom newcomer coping with a patronising Churchill 40 years earlier.
But Mirren also captures the Queen’s mix of the extraordinary and the ordinary. Like HMQ in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution, she has the capacity to see through all forms of pretence. And, in her dialogues with her younger self, she conveys the sense of entrapment and loneliness that co-exists with a life of royal privilege. I have a theory that all plays about monarchy, from Shakespeare’s Henry V to Howard Brenton’s 55 Days, end up as studies of solitude. That’s exactly what happens here. But if Morgan’s speculative and essentially static high-class political gossip – what you might call Pepys behind the scenes – acquires emotional resonance, it is largely thanks to the naturally majestic Mirren.
Until 15 June. Box Office: 0844 4825130
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.