Is it a play or is it a film? That is the question. Or certainly that was the one I was asking as we took our seats at Dubai’s Courtyard Playhouse.
We were here for a National Theatre Live screening of The Audience, Peter Morgan’s award- winning play, starring theatrical royalty, Dame Helen Mirren. I’d always wondered whether seeing a broadcast of a play on a cinema screen counts as a true theatrical experience but given that the West End of London is a bit out of reach right now, this seemed a good moment to find out how it all worked.
The filmed performance featured the original cast and also included a post-show discussion between Dame Helen and the director, Stephen Daldry.
The Courtyard is an intimate, refurbished performance space, with comfortable red velvet seats giving an appropriate sense of occasion. The broadcast in front of the original audience begins before the houselights go down so we see people in their seats and later hear them respond with applause and laughter that we share but are not part of. The urge to clap a well-delivered speech, and especially when the actors take their bows, is a reflex response that feels a little odd when the players are not actually present.
The play invites us to eavesdrop on the famously private weekly conversations between Her Majesty and the prime minister of the day. Through imagined, yet wholly credible exchanges, Helen Mirren’s brilliant and transformative performance as Queen Elizabeth II runs from her accession to the throne in 1952, to the present day.
Lightening changes of clothes and wigs, some cunningly magical, are remarkably effective but it is through the leading lady’s nuanced performance and vocal dexterity that we see Elizabeth Windsor grow in confidence, acquiring the wit and wisdom her prime ministers rely on as they and the monarchy are tested over six decades.
The narrative is not presented chronologically so you are constantly wondering who will appear next. This roll call of British history features Winston Churchill, John Major, Anthony Eden, David Cameron, Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson, Gordon Brown, and a cameo appearance by James Callaghan. Tony Blair was glossed over but apparently written into the Broadway production. Each PM reveals their own human and political frailties, along with the issues of the day, during the allotted 20-minute confessional.
The mood is varied as the script requires much more of the actors than mere impersonation. Some of the most touching moments occur when Major, Brown and Wilson voice their self-doubts in the top job. They receive a sympathetic and understanding hearing, in between some gentle teasing on both sides that I would love to believe actually happened. The writer gives the Queen a razor sharp wit and Mirren’s comic timing delivers every time.
Like a silk thread, woven into the play, the Queen has several encounters with her young self as she kicks against her pre-determined destiny. There is a satisfying irony here as in the later discussion Dame Helen reveals that before she read the script she too decided that she didn’t want to be Queen – for a second time. Starring in the acclaimed film of the same name, also written by Peter Morgan, made her the obvious choice but for that reason, maybe it was time to move on. Destiny intervened. Whatever doubts Dame Helen may have had soon evaporated when she realised the production and design team represented the cream of British theatre and she would be crazy to turn the opportunity down
To make the NT Live experience satisfying characters are often seen in close up or from angles that would be unavailable to anyone watching from a theatre seat. This illustrates both the advantages and the limitations of this theatre hybrid. In the post-show interview Dame Helen explains that acting for a theatre audience and the camera – simultaneously – is a skill she felt she hadn’t yet perfected. There were moments when the camera seemed a fraction too close to work successfully for the film viewer and for a second or two our favourite Dame seemed to teeter on the edge of panto. The fault of the medium, rather than the performance, I believe.
The odd misjudged camera angle is nothing compared with the opportunity to experience some of London’s best theatre productions in distant locations. The forthcoming programme includes the hottest ticket in London right now – Hamlet as played by Benedict Cumberbatch – and soon available in Dubai at movie ticket prices. Bravo!