Following the critical success of The Queen in 2006, British playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan has returned, along with the stunning Helen Mirren, with a new and witty production about the relationship between Britain's beloved monarch and her heads of state. This play – captured by Live Theatre Direct – presents a fascinating 'what if scenario' about the closely guarded conversations between Queen Elizabeth II and her twelve prime ministers.
Reigning during some of the greatest technological and social revolutions in modern British history, Mirren's queen is part-therapist, part confidant for her prime ministers. Her power over them is portrayed as stemming not only from the British monarchy but also her femininity. Churchill giving a hint to the audience early on when he mentions to the queen that 'one by one the prime ministers will fall under your spell'.
And yet, Mirren's queen is also traditionally represented as the guardian of British culture. Her symbolic position is set up in an early scene between an eager, young Thatcher and the iconic Churchill. A queen new to her roles, and a broken prime minister whose rallying speeches about the Commonwealth myth have led to a bankrupt England. Despite being beset on all sides by enemies, Churchill is the final colossus for the golden era of the British Commonwealth. The queen's significance to him, and the war, cementing her as a bridge between the old Britain and the new for her later prime ministers.
These later leaders are shown as tortured, struggling to bring a colonial Britain into the post Commonwealth world. Each of these prime ministers individually feel the collapse of the Churchillian idea of a powerful Britain, and many from Thatcher to Eden wish to salvage it. Mirren's inner child tells her 'she is something that these complicated people can measure themselves against, something unchanging'. The queen in this sense is also portrayed as the, rather passive, conscience of a United Kingdom that is attempting to re-understand itself.
Caught between national conscience and confidant, the queen's oscillation between the two is what truly electrifies the play. Morgan shows these short weekly meetings as being not only about the prime minister briefing the queen, but also as a rare chance for the heads of state to be candid about their aspirations and ideologies. What Mirren wonderfully captures is a queen sympathetic to her prime ministers, but also one wary of their policies. If Thatcher was the voice for economic modernisation, Queen Elizabeth symbolised the quiet concern for the ordinary people. The British people's duty to international law to Eden's ambitious desire to regain the Suez canal. In this sense, the queen is described in the traditional manner as a necessary lever within the British political system.
Particularly fascinating though is how the queen adroitly shows her favour and disfavour of the prime ministers. 'Be friendly, not friends' is the queen's professional buzz line. Of course, her affinity for Wilson over the rest is overt. The two are shown forming an unlikely friendship – akin to an elephant and a bird. He, a worldly, bumbling and inspired working class man, and she a monarch disconnected from the real world. Wilson, in particular, is wonderfully acted by Richard McCabe; and anyone steeped in British culture will see that Morgan and McCabe have expertly captured the leader's most famous mannerisms.
Wilson enjoying the hospitality of the queen in Balmoral
Even the queen's relationship with Thatcher, which could easily have been portrayed as unrelentingly hostile, is woven with intricacies. Thatcher and the queen's scene centres around a supposed leak from the queen over Thatcher's crippling reforms. It was the queen's first departure from her traditional silence in political matters. What you are left with is two women clashing over how the British political elite envision the values of their subjects. And yet, lurking beneath the hostility, and despite their ideological differences, a mutual respect between the two lingers. One stemming perhaps from the knowledge that both of them are of similar age and unique in the male dominated world of British politics.