The Audience: QEII as global brand

Peter Morgan’s new play continues his genuflection to the monarch at the expense of the leaders we have elected.

Patrick Marmion

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Is there any clearer sign of the times than what has been greeted as the theatrical event of the year in the UK – a doting biopic of the queen speculating on the true hidden character of Elizabeth Windsor?

Starring Helen Mirren, Her Majesty’s glittering personality is revealed through private ‘audiences’ held with the 12 successive prime ministers in her 60-year reign. The result is supine hagiography in which the queen is seen as graciously transcending the plebeian business of party politics and uniting our great nation.

Perhaps this was to be expected from writer Peter Morgan. He was, after all, the man who rehabilitated the UK monarch in Stephen Frears’ 2006 film, The Queen. The film paid a large part in restoring her reputation as the mother of a nation that proclaimed it had shaken off traditional class bonds and become a fully integrated, multicultural meritocracy. The queen has since been fully invested as a popular political figure who, mirabile dictu, turns out to be a good left-leaning liberal. According to Morgan, she not only opposed Conservative prime minister Anthony Eden’s siding with Israel against Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956, but also rebuked Margaret Thatcher for opposing sanctions against the Apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1980s.

Never mind that, as a queen, she remains a feudal anachronism in an industrial democracy. We are led to believe she is a woman steadfastly aligned with truth, freedom and change. Moreover, Morgan’s play attempts to set itself beyond reproach by posing as speculative fiction based on scraps of historical research, spiced with hearsay. Like the old joke about psychoanalysis, his thesis is simply ‘untesticle’. So, on Bob Crowley’s set in the pillared grandeur of the private audience room beneath her Gainsboroughs and Canalettos, the Queen is shown as an ordinary but wise and warmhearted woman stoically cut off from her playful younger self. ‘There is no abdicating, like the pope’, she remarks in one rueful aside, forgetting about her uncle Edward.

This play is not therefore even remotely interested in the truth. This is a queen who is half-saint, half-therapist, and wholly sympathetic to the depression suffered by gaffe prone and OCD-afflicted Gordon Brown. Never mind that he sucked up to the banks to fund his largesse in office and that he wrote the cheques for Tony Blair’s Iraq war. Vulgar politics have also been conveniently set aside so that we can overlook that David Cameron heads a divisive government perched on top of a stratospheric and escalating national debt. Rather than consider what he stands for, we chuckle at how he sends Her Maj to sleep and how he has a silly way of walking like a primate.

Apart from the inevitable corgis, one of the play’s most sentimental features is the idea that the queen loved no one better than the dear old Labour prime minister of the Sixties and Seventies, Harold Wilson. Isn’t he gorgeously cute with his donnish ways and saggy suit? And isn’t it telling that he smoked a pipe in public to affect working-class solidarity – rather than risk alienating backbenchers by smoking that noxious symbol of fat-cat capitalism, a cigar? Who would have thought that Harold actually believed in something like the common ownership of the means of production and distribution? Forget about nationalisation, all he really wants is for the footman to take a snap of him with the Queen to show his dad.

We are not, however, supposed to be considering the play as a political proposition. Mindful perhaps of making a trip to Buckingham Palace to receive some sort of honour themselves one day, we are supposed only to judge Morgan’s show, directed by Stephen Daldry, as a piece of entertainment. And don’t whatever you do mention Hilary Mantel or suggest that just as Kate Middleton has been adopted as public property snapped in and out of her bikini, so the queen has become the embodiment of political quiescence in and out of her ceremonial robes. Just like Kate, it is vital to know everything about her and know nothing at all – so preserving her mystique like the Wizard of Oz. But if as she says herself ‘I don’t need to be known’, what is the play doing on stage?

Naturally, this plea ‘I don’t need to be known’ is a cunning double bluff by Morgan. It is said precisely so we can carry on prying. But since we don’t have direct access to the Church of England’s Defender of the Faith, we must settle for Helen Mirren. The actress is herself showbiz royalty and kindly reprises her Oscar-nominated performance. Her voice is not so shrill or nasally as that of our actual Queen, but intermittently jutting her jaw and narrowing her eyes, she has every bit of that ferocious ‘I’m the queen and I mean to cut that ribbon’ look about her. And the way she moves is immaculate: first with the quick step of youth, then with the stately bustle of mid-life and finally the pained stiffness of old age. Nor is the production any less slick, slipping Mirren in and out of outfits in the twinkling of a tiara.

But this is not only a reactionary production, it’s also profoundly contradictory and even hypocritical. Playing to the gallery of popular scorn for Thatcher, the Eighties union basher and iron-clad conqueror of the Falklands is presented as an overbearing upstart who is by turns ingratiating and haughty. She has a crude speech vaunting the Eighties’ free-market individualism which we’re all meant to choke on as if we’d grown out of it. But the same speech conveniently overlooks the fact that Morgan’s play is no less rooted in that ideology of free-market individualism and casts the queen as a global brand. And is if to rub salt into the irony, the play’s director Stephen Daldry is a former gay-rights activist who gave us Billy Elliot – the film and musical that disavowed the coarse individualism of Mrs Thatcher with a parable of modern individualism triumphing over the bigotry of northern miners.

But perhaps hardest to take is the treatment of Tony Blair. The man who consolidated Thatcherism in the guise of the ‘Cool Britannia’ era never appears, but is subject to regular sniggers. How we laugh at him and his common wife wearing new tweeds with the label still attached on their trip to Balmoral! How we guffaw when the queen calls her Cheryl not Cherie! And how unforgiveable it was for Tony Blair to presume to move the weekly Tuesday audience to Wednesday evening so he could prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament!

These cheap shots at the man who Archbishop Desmond Tutu counts as a war criminal are beneath contempt. What was and remains wrong with Tony Blair is his political beliefs and actions in office – not his sleazy cheesiness or that faux grin and concocted humility. What counts was his subjection of British public life to managerial calculation and playing the political lapdog to US Republicans over the Iraq war.

If The Audience seeks to conceal its royalist nationalism behind a façade of National Trust-inspired entertainment fronted by a smug, liveried prologue, then we should not allow it to do so. It is particularly galling that at a time when people are calling for the abolition of the House of Lords and denounce the institutional injustice of hereditary titles, we are nonetheless happy to endorse and celebrate the queen as some kind of pole star in the bungling navigations of successive politicians.

If I were the queen, I would be worried. Such puffing up and unsubstantiated adulation foreshadows a fall. Borne up on a wave of public wish-fulfilment, she can be just as easily cast down when she no longer serves as a symbol of fictional national unity. But it may be too late, she has already been sucked into the remorseless logic of fetishised presence behind the mask. Her escalation as a symbol of national unity hides powerful social, economic and political conflicts that will inevitably explode.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Visit his website here:

The Audience is playing at the Gielgud Theatre in London until 15 June 2013.

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