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The Royal She

WEB-EXCLUSIVE: The National Theatre Live Program brings us the best of British theater.

When we heard that Helen Mirren was starring in a play in London this fall we were tempted to buy a plane ticket then and there – cost and convenience be damned – to see her star as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s new play for the National Theatre, The Audience. Luckily, we remembered that the National Theatre has the extraordinary National Theatre Live Program, which brings live (in Britain) and taped (in America) HD broadcasts of the best of British theater to cinemas and theaters world-wide. Locally, the Irvine Barclay Theatre has teamed up with Arts Orange County to broadcast the 50th anniversary season of the National, which includes the best of both new and prior productions.

So we got to see Dame Helen as the queen after all, September 7, in a nearly sold-out matinee showing (tickets to the evening showing sold out in a flash so an afternoon performance was added).

Yes, you’ve seen Mirren before as Elizabeth II, in the 2006 movie The Queen – also penned by Peter Morgan – for which she won an Academy Award. But: a) This portrait of the queen’s relationship with her long line of prime ministers over the course of her reign offers an entirely different angle on her story and b) We are of the belief that a chance to see Helen Mirren read the proverbial phonebook is one not to be missed, let alone the chance to see her as close to live as one can be and still be this side of the pond.

Mirren, and the play, do not disappoint. Alternatively imperious and vulnerable, determined and helpless, Mirren’s interpretation of the queen makes her feel even more human than she did in The Queen. Constructed as a series of meetings with various of her prime ministers intercut with memories of her girlhood self (who, when told the only way to “get out” of becoming queen one day is for her parents to have a boy, declares that she is going off to pray for just that), the play moves back and forth in time (with truly dazzling quick-change magic as her majesty goes from age 70 to age 25 in seconds) to ultimately create a portrait of a woman deeply invested in and aware of her duty, who also genuinely cares about the state of her country and her people. But the ultimate impression one gets from Mirren’s deeply felt and nuanced performance is that this is a woman who is profoundly alone – as opposed to lonely – in her life. Forced to remain a constant presence of unequivocal support to her prime ministers, whether or not she truly agrees with them, unable to openly advocate for what are depicted as her strong sense of decency and humanity, she particularly clashes with Margaret Thatcher (an over-the-top Haydn Gwynne) and Anthony Eden (a quintessentially upper-crust Michael Elwyn), both of whom seem to have put self-interest above the interests of the people. On the other hand, she develops an unlikely bond with the two-time prime minister Harold Wilson, who comes so far from the “wrong side of the tracks” that her majesty has literally never heard of his hometown.

Morgan, who aside from The Queen is also the author of the play and Academy Award-nominated screenplay of Frost/Nixon, as well as the under-seen but marvelous film The Damned United (all of which co-starred Michael Sheen), is adamant that the conversations between the queen and her ministers, which in real life are adamantly kept secret, are the products of his imagination, but he obviously has an affinity for the royal life, in all its majesty and banality.

Unfortunately, all the National Theatre broadcasts are, as the British say, one-offs, so you can’t see The Audience in the near future (though there are often encore broadcasts during the off-season). But there are many more delights to come, including Kenneth Branagh starring in Macbeth in November and an encore performance of 2011’s Frankenstein starring arguably the hottest British import since The Beatles, Benedict Cumberbatch.

For anyone who loves great theater the National Theatre Live broadcasts are a must, and during this 50th anniversary star-studded season, the chance to see your favorites practically in the flesh should not be missed.

National Theatre Live
Irvine Barclay Theatre
Othello and Frankenstein in October;
Macbeth in November
Tickets: $20; $15 for students
ntlive.com :: thebarclay.org :: sparkoc.com

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