Review: “The Audience”

Janet Ulrich Brooks (left) as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt DeCaro as Winston Churchill in THE AUDIENCE.
Photo by Lara Goetsch

“The Audience”

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through Nov. 12
Tickets: $40-$54
Phone: 773-281-8463 ext. 6

Theater Critic

Janet Ulrich Brooks doesn’t look or sound much like Queen Elizabeth II, but in TimeLine Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of Peter Morgan’s “The Audience” she makes Her Majesty’s presence palpable. Happily, this stellar actress is surrounded by a highly capable cast in a production that’s especially commendable for its intimacy.

Morgan, who also wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for “The Queen” and created the Netflix series “The Crown,” inspired by this play, chronicles the weekly Tuesday meetings between the monarch and her prime ministers over the course of more than six decades. The scenes are not chronological but rather ordered to highlight certain themes, and since the sessions were private, the proceedings are the playwright’s speculations. In other words, we get a picture of what he thinks the world’s longest reigning royal (now that the king of Thailand has died) might be like, which may or may not reflect reality.

While the hit West End and Broadway productions starring Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for her performance in “The Queen”) were elaborately staged, director Nick Bowling wisely scales back for TimeLine. The flexible theater is in-the-round for this show, with a mere three rows of seats, so no one is more than a few feet from the stage. The Equerry (David Lively), our narrator-guide, describes the room in Buckingham Palace (and one at Balmoral Castle), but what we see (designed by Jeffrey Kmiec) is white carpeting, a huge overhead chandelier, four little round tables, and four white-upholstered chairs—rather than the expected two, for better audience viewing.

The Queen’s costumes and wigs (designed by Theresa Ham and Katie Cordts, respectively) have been minimized, so Brooks has to alter her age—sometimes drastically—with a simple shift of jacket, shoes, and body language. Perhaps more significantly, instead of being played by different actors as in London and New York, all the male Prime Ministers are played by two, Matt DeCaro and Mark Ulrich, requiring lots of quick changes.

We only eavesdrop on audiences with eight of the thirteen (so far) Prime Ministers ranging from Winston Churchill (1940-45, 1951-55) to David Cameron (2010-2016). Some of the juxtapositions are canny. For example, in the first scene, the Queen counsels a depressed John Major (1990-1997; Ulrich) with compassion when he confesses his failures at school and parents’ disappointment. Then, in the second, a paternalistic Churchill (DeCaro) tries to school the not-yet-crowned Elizabeth, only to find her full of questions and a lot savvier than he bargained for.

Brooks conveys Her Majesty’s sharp sense of humor with a crisp quip or change of expression, yet her softer side subtly comes through in her three sparring encounters (one of them at Balmoral) with Harold Wilson (DeCaro), the brilliant but blustery plain-spoken Labour leader who would seem to be her polar opposite. The penultimate scene in June 1995, prior to his resignation, is especially poignant.

On the other hand, she has complete contempt for Tony Blair (DeCaro), and her meeting with Margaret Thatcher (Carmen Roman) is positively icy. Thatcher practically storms in, furious over supposed leaks to the press, but the bigger bone of contention is their difference of opinion over apartheid in South Africa, where the Prime Minister’s family has business interests.

This is one of the scenes that highlights an ongoing dilemma for the Queen. She’s required to support the PM’s government no matter what and not allowed to express her personal political opinions. In other words, she has no real power, except perhaps that of moral persuasion during the meetings, which are held as a matter of convention—not law—to keep her informed.

Other flash points for Her Majesty include the collusion and cover-ups over Suez, for which she takes Anthony Eden (Ulrich) to task, and her “Annus Horribilis,” 1992, which saw the breakup of Prince Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana, as well as a fire at Windsor Castle and disputes over her responsibilities during an economic crisis. Ill with the flu (she calls it a “cold” and hates being sick), she’s offended at the idea of paying income tax—and outraged when Major suggests decommissioning her beloved yacht Britannia.

Brooks bristles with fury, and we see how it’s sparked by a dedication to job she regards as a sacred duty from God. Periodic conversations with her rebellious 10-year-old self (Audrey Edwards alternating with Sophie Ackerman), who’s on the cusp of of realizing her future role, reinforce her ambivalence and hint of regret.

But mostly our takeaway from “The Audience” is the Queen Elizabeth II remains a complicated, comforting symbol of continuity in an ever-changing world. In some respects, she is isolated, no matter how well-travelled, but in other ways, she’s connected by a basic humanity that Brooks really makes us feel.