Sunday, May 17, 2015

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Interview

All Hail Helen Mirren!  She is not only the Toast of Broadway, she is its reigning current queen as long as she plays Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan's fantasy play The Interview.

The author (who also wrote Frost/Nixon and the screenplay for The Queen, an Oscar winning performance for Dame Helen) imagines what occurs during the weekly private meetings that the monarch has had with a queue of Prime Ministers, starting with a crotchety, self-serving Sir Winston Churchill, through the controversial Sir Anthony Eden, the down-to-earth Labour PM Harold Wilson, with whom Queen Elizabeth had a very close rapport, and the mighty Margaret Thatcher, whom the Queen saw as a fellow traveler as well as a very real rival for power. The play also includes a couple of scenes with John Major, whom we learn was not wholly prepared to lead a nation when it was his turn at the dispatch box, the very angry, and very Scottish Gordon Brown, and David Cameron, the UK's current Prime Minister. There is also a very small cameo by Tony Blair, but surprisingly the author does not imagine a one-to-one interview with the well-known leader of "New Labour."

When Dame Helen is on stage she rules. Our eyes are glued to her. This is part stagecraft, part stage presence. When Churchill appears center stage for his interview, puffing on a cigar, as portrayed by the physically imposing Dakin Matthews, he is a great dinosaur of a politician. The scene has been staged by director Stephen Daldry so perfectly that our eyes cannot help but shift momentarily to him. This gives Dame Helen (and her dressers) enough time to perform one of her many lightning fast costume changes right on stage. Suddenly she is transformed into the young, uncrowned queen welcoming her first Prime Minister who carries an agenda as big as his girth. It is early magic in a production that is filled with such delightful moments.

Among the visitors to Buckingham Palace two Prime Ministers stand out: John Major (Dylan Baker), and Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe). Each of these scenes plays beautifully in contrast to the other. Mr. Baker portrays a weak, but very human John Major, a politician unable to escape from the shadow of his "Iron Lady" predecessor. Likewise, Mr. McCabe plays the droll Mr. Wilson who knows that politically he has to push his socialist agenda to a woman who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Despite their social class differences, the play portrays their relationship in the warmest of ways. It is the most satisfying interview of the evening, and Mr. Morgan even dramatizes a trip by Mr. Wilson to Balmoral Castle for a rainy weekend in Scotland with the Royal Family.

This is an evening of sheer artistry on Broadway.  A unique play where even the interval (or intermission, as we say in the States) has a very British atmosphere.  It is a not to be missed production, and  one of the big contenders for this year's Tony Awards.

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