Helen Mirren: Queen of Drama – The Audience NT Screening

Back in 2008 I went across to Manchester to see the Brazilian company Group XIX de Teatro who were performing in the Victoria Baths on Hathersage Road, then (and still) undergoing restoration. Waiting for the performance and wandering around the empty gala pool in all its eerie, magnificent, albeit decaying splendour, I experienced an uncanny feeling of familiarity. It took me a while to realise that I’d ‘seen’ the Baths in one of the ‘Prime Suspect’ episodes starring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison. It is one of my favourite episodes, with Tennison going up against a ruthless gang leader ‘The Street’.

From a feminist perspective, Mirren’s performance as Tennison was gripping: here was a senior female officer who found herself fighting gender inequality within the police force as she went after the ‘prime suspect’ villains. An ardent fan of the series when originally broadcast, I still enjoy repeat viewings. Or rather, I opt for repeat viewings of episodes prior to Tennison’s final descent into alcoholism, a decision on the part of the programme makers that, like Lynda La Plante who wrote the first three episodes, I find regrettable and disappointing (see also Gerry’s comments on this issue: https://dramaqueensreview.com/2012/12/18/209/ ).

Unlike Tennison’s downwards spiral at the close of the series, Mirren has continued her dazzling career and this year returned to the stage for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s West End hit, The Audience, directed by Stephen Daldry. Screened as part of the National Theatre Live series it has reportedly achieved record viewing figures for the National’s live screenings

I can’t say that I found Morgan’s The Audience, that I saw screened from the Dukes Theatre Lancaster, entirely satisfying as a drama, consisting as it does of a series of private one-to-one ‘audiences’ between the Queen and British prime ministers in office during her reign, each with its own intrinsic pleasures, but never building towards a compositional whole that affords the sense of an unfolding drama between the royal house (Queen) and the house of commons (politician). Nor does Morgan’s introduction of the child Elizabeth to register the split between public persona and private, inner self really help to redress that lack. Instead, the pleasures of this show reside in Mirren’s virtuoso performance, for which she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress, and in the cameo roles of the prime ministers played by a stellar cast (click here for full details http://www.theaudienceplay.com/team/).

As a fan of Mirren I was enchanted, though this did feel like something of a guilty pleasure given Morgan’s script and its evacuation of a political canvas, notwithstanding the hint (rightly or wrongly) of a monarch disposed more to the left rather than the right, as glimpsed through the warmth shown to Labour PM Harold Wilson (played by Richard McCabe), while the reputed frosty relations between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne) proved a rather disappointing cameo. (The latter I’ve seen portrayed to much better, bitingly comic, political effect in Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, that was part of the Tricycle’s 2010 ‘Women, Power and Politics, Then & Now’ series.)

Now in her late sixties, Mirren is such an important, iconic female figure in terms of intervening in the relentless abject, ageist and sexist imaging of older women. But what I miss is seeing her in a feisty, edgy role like that of Tennison. Sarah Bernhardt, one of if not the star actress of the nineteenth-century, cited by Mirren as a ‘romantic’ influence in the early days of her career, knew how to manage her roles and production of her image until the end of her acting years (death). Time then, I would say, for Mirren to be inspired again by the likes of the French diva, looking for those spirited roles that are arguably more worthy of her as today’s ‘queen’ of drama.


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