Onstage at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, we observe an intimate, firsthand, behind the scenes tradition; Queen Elizabeth II engaging in weekly social outings with British Prime Ministers. These tete-a-tetes were initiated with Winston Churchill and continued for six decades (in the play) to David Cameron. According to the narrative, only Her Majesty, and the succession of visiting PM’s to Buckingham Palace, know what was said.
The title references the Queen’s off-the-record chats with Britain’s elected political leaders in a Palace sitting room rendered in restrained richness on the Royal Alex stage. Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “The Crown”) has crafted a fictionalized imagining of those undocumented encounters, playing up the tricky relationship between Crown and Government.
The narrative, a representation at times blunt, but also indirect on other occasions, makes plain that as the country’s symbolic leader the Monarch has influenced politics, but in a give and take trade-off, she has been influenced as well by the leading politicians. It illustrates how Queen Elizabeth operates behind the scenes with no authority to contradict policy, but according to19th century protocal, “to be consulted, to advise and to warn”, which rules out dramatic conflict. However, playwright Morgan offsets these obstacles with feasible success.
In the royal role Fiona Reid demonstrates her quick-change virtuosity (dresses, gowns, wigs) in becoming ER at different ages, from 1951 to the present. Its a challenge Reid performs most admirably, bolstering her regal image as acting royalty. I saw Helen Mirren’s incandescent portrayal (beamed to North American movie theatres from the London stage), reacting with awe as this Grand Dame transmitted a realistic rendering of HRM. Comparisons should be avoided as Reid fills the role with majestic grandeur, in paying homage to the reigning monarch’s steady growth in confidence and authority, mixing the extraordinary and ordinary over time. Reid’s dialogues with her youthful self express the atmosphere of caged aloneness associated with protocal and ritual connected to a life of royal privilege. In a sense, it’s a life of solitude.
Its a measured performance by Reid, we see a Queen as a politically saavy woman with strong opinions which are constrained by her regal station. She’s not immune to self deprecation (often humorous), in the public perseption of her as “a postage stamp with a pulse.” She’s a lady with a whimsical edge.
The play takes on an edginess of its own when “The Iron Lady” comes to call. Its not exactly a cat fight, more like a duel between perhaps the two most influential women in 20th century Britain. As portrayed by veteran Kate Hennig (Shaw/Stratford Festivals, Broadway, U.S/Canadian film/tv), Margaret Thatcher marches in and verbally spars with HM over the public criticism from the throne about the PM’s harsh policies. The polite quarrel centers on government sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa, which illuminates the Queen’s deeply felt loyalty toward the Commonwealth nations. Its not so much a “battle royal” between the sovereign and her adversarial PM, but dramatizes the Queen’s inability (by decree) to interfere in political matters.
A who’s who of top ranked theatre veterans (Stratford/Shaw Festivals, film/tv) contribute able support as the various Prime Ministers that were privy to the weekly tea gatherings with the sovereign, thus allowing us (through the playwright’s imagination, as well as ours,) entrance to the inner chambers of Crown and State. Weighty matters and cordial asides blend into two hours, ten minutes of theatrical joie de vivre.
Fiona Reid reigns with majesty and humor through February 26 at Toronto’s restored Royal Alexandra Theatre.