Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
By Bec Willett
If you’re a BBC fan like me you’ve most probably watched The Crown. If you have, or if you’re just up on your British politics you’ll also know that for as long as she’s reigned, Queen Elizabeth has held a weekly audience with the Prime Minister, the head of the British government. While exact details have been kept private, it is these conversations informed by the allusions made by several Prime Ministers that are the basis of Peter Morgan’s THE AUDIENCE currently showing at Timeline Theatre.
The glittering chandelier refracting off the elegant all-white set makes it immediately apparent that this is a play about power, wealth and responsibility. Of course, the examination of the inner workings of people in power makes for timely content, but alas in this instance it also makes for a script that is weighed down by (albeit necessary) exposition. Even though director Nick Bowling and the cast of actors do their best to lighten the explanatory first act, it’s unclear as to whether Bowling’s goal is to create an accurate representation of the British monarchy or to create a larger, more theatrical impression more easily consumed by an American audience.
“You’re allowing complicated people, over-complicated people, to measure themselves against something unchanging,” Janet Ulrich Brooks states in her role as Queen Elizabeth toward the end of the play. An accomplished actor, Ulrich Brooks is indefatigably watchable and although she is most certainly believable as this consistent voice of authority, it is difficult to see this portrayal as the epitome of British decorum that the monarch represents. There’s an openness in her physicality – arms often resting on the armrests of chairs instead of in her lap, her voice raised on multiple occasions, and an emotional life, still easily read on her face, rather than fully covered by years of training in the protocol of politeness. Perhaps it is due to my colonialist upbringing, but it seems evident that in this instance Bowling’s direction has favored theatricality over exact representation.
The ensemble joining Ulrich Brooks’ Queen could be considered Chicago acting royalty unto themselves, so it’s no surprise they’ve more than done their homework. Complete with spot-on British dialects and physicalities, Matt Decaro and Mark Ulrich play the seven different male prime ministers between them, Carmen Roman plays multiple characters, notably, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, accompanied by David Lively as Equerry and Audrey Edwards as Young Elizabeth. Like Ulrich Brooks, their performances bubble with technical prowess, once again everything feels a little too big – too theatrical; an excellent and entertaining impression but without the depth of relationship an audience can really invest in. The script does the actors and director no favors, as it’s not until the second act that the dialogue sheds its expository tone and shifts the focus towards the relationships. Yet, when we finally get there, particularly the end scene between the Queen and Decaro’s Harold Wilson, those moments are worth it. But it’s a long time to wait.
Peter Morgan’s THE AUDIENCE presents a difficult task. Though Timeline’s production may not always embrace and reflect the nuance of the British ideal, the strong cast of actors ensure the journey is always pleasant, if not enjoyable.