‘The Audience’ and other stories: National Theatre Live

I’m almost starting to get confused between Helen Mirren and the Queen herself, so accustomed am I to seeing this great British leading lady playing our monarch. After the rave reviews of the 2012 film The Queen, Mirren has donned the crown once again in this new play by Skyfall co-writer Peter Morgan.

Of course by now it’s not entirely new, as this stage production hit the West End back in February, and was first broadcast to cinemas across the UK on 13 June. But the wonderful team at National Theatre Live have included this broadcast from the Gielgud Theatre in a series of  ‘encore’ screenings, as the National celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Mirren excels once again in this wonderful production. She is full of charm, warmth, wit and, most impressively for a character whose inner thoughts we know so little about, depth. Presenting a series of imagined conversations between Her Majesty and a selection of her many prime ministers, The Audience covers a wide array of political events, which are fascinating when refracted through this semi-fictional lens, but never feels like merely a history lesson. It might be beneficial if you have a basic grasp of 20th century politics and history – with references to the Suez crisis, miners’ strikes and rationing scattered across the script – but it doesn’t really matter too much. What shines through is the personal, human emotion of these figures of power. There are laughs aplenty – the bumbling Harold Wilson (affectionately and wonderfully portrayed by Richard McCabe) and hilariously accurate depictions of David Cameron and Gordon Brown  by Rufus Wright and Nathaniel Parker stand out – but also moments of poignancy, achieved through a clever script and a beautifully understated yet powerful performance by Mirren. She delivers so much in a look, in a gesture, that even in the restrained – and supposedly politically neutral – character of the queen, we feel the wealth of swirling emotions beneath the polished exterior.

Notable potential targets of this drama are absent: Tony Blair is absent from the script, reportedly at the request of producer Andy Harries, as is the death of Princess Diana. Yet the scenes are cleverly chosen, and intelligently ordered. From the first, splendidly regal appearance of Mirren, clad in a gorgeous royal blue, we subsequently jump backwards in time to the queen’s first ever audience – with, of course, the traditional and experienced Winston Churchill (Edward Fox). Her naivety and lack of certainty in the face of Churchill’s old-school formality is touching, and helps to round out the character beyond the Queen we all recognise today. Also immensely pleasing is the forceful discussion with Margaret Thatcher, terrifically played by Haydn Gwynne. Although the subject of the meeting is tense, there is something incredibly joyous and brilliant about seeing this meeting of two of the most commanding women in British history – and the audience’s reaction proves it.

This is a brilliant production, and it’s wonderful that so many more people are able to experience it through the National Theatre Live project. Although there are some great ticket offers out there, particularly for young people and local residents, the cost of West End theatre is still a barrier to many people, especially when you add the price of travelling to London. Compared to that, a £10 trip to the cinema down the road is a pretty good alternative! I’ll always prefer live theatre performance, as you unavoidably lose a great deal of the connection between audience and actor when viewing a screen; but National Theatre Live certainly provides the next best thing. When a show is a sell-out it gives access to an even bigger audience, and I for one am hugely excited about the upcoming programme of ‘encore’ screenings, which will give me the chance to see some of the National’s best recent productions that I missed out on the first time around!

National Theatre Live: 50th Anniversary Encore Screenings trailer (courtesy of National Theatre)

Fresh from his spellbinding performance as Iago in the National Theatre’s Othello (which was broadcast live on 26 September), Rory Kinnear’s critically-acclaimed turn as Hamlet will be shown on 22 October. Described as “an evening to admire and cherish” by Michael Billington, Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation moves the action to a present day Elsinore where constant surveillance means even the famed soliloquies are always under scrutiny by a hidden audience.

Creepy in a different way – and probably the screening I’m most excited about! – Frankenstein comes to cinemas from 31 October, giving those of us who didn’t make it to the theatre a chance to see Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in Danny Boyle’s 2011 “monster hit” (credit to TimeOut London for that pun). Both combinations of cast are being broadcast on separate dates, as Miller and Cumberbatch alternated for the original run, but either should be a terrific watch. My instinct says I’d prefer Miller as the creature and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein… either way, I can’t wait to finally see this Olivier award-winning production that I mourned missing two years ago.

Also appearing in the Encore season is Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, featuring Frances de la Tour, Alex Jennings and the glorious, much-missed Richard Griffiths, while new broadcasts include, amongst others, the underrated Shakespeare tragedy Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddlestone, and the celebrated War Horse. The latter is one I’d rather see in the flesh, as it looks to be running in London for a good while to come yet: the magic of the puppetry is surely unbeatable on stage, but as I’ve said, the opportunity to see this hit show for a few quid in your local town is fantastic – and based on the success of the book, film and stage adaptation, the cinemas are sure to be packed out!

With an increasing number of musicals, plays and operas being broadcast at cinemas on a regular basis, here’s hoping that the National Theatre Live continues to take the lead on this great idea, bringing Britain’s wonderful theatre to more and more people around the country.

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