A showing of Britain’s National Theatre production of “The Audience” on June 13, 2013, broadcast live may not have been as controversial as a few years of filmed ballets and operas, but it played up how the electronic medium adversely affected the play. A major criticism of filmed musical performances, such as operas from Met Live, is that they are edited and therefore not true to what audiences see in a theater. The criticism is like that heaped on television for editing films to fit the TV screen.

A ballet filmed may zoom in on lead dancers and omit the corps around them or get the faces but not the feet in a pas de deux. The camera’s editing similarly affects operas. For example, a Met Live version of The Magic Flute a few years back showed the camera’s preference for Pappageno and underplaying of The Queen of the Night. Emerging pictures, however, presented Kenneth Branagh’s version of the opera, which was created directly for film. It used the medium brilliantly, especially special effects and digitalization, though it always focused on the performers.

National Theatre of Great Britain has filmed live performances (and filmed encores) of its productions for a few years with the same kind of editing by the cameras that’s been done for ballets and operas. With The Audience, no such editing was needed. It features a single set and single focus -- downstage center. (It must have been easy to move to the West End, where it was last broadcast.) The major props are two chairs.

The Audience chronicles Queen Elizabeth II (beautifully mimicked by Helen Mirren, as in her Oscar-winning film role) meeting with each of her 12 Prime Ministers each week in Buckingham Palace. As the program states, “From Churchill to Cameron, each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional--sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.”

In a film, a person may age via the filming process and also in the editing room. To do so onstage requires changes of costumes and make-up, including hair-dos, especially in a play that is representional. As playwrights have always done in such cases, Peter Morgan has provided scenes from other times -- here in the youth of Princess Elizabeth, aged about 11 (and by an actress uncredited). She comes forward while The Queen changes clothes, cosmetics and wigs. The scenes not only slow down the play’s progress as filmed but also seem unnecessary to the plot, at least in detail.

The Audience must have been a compelling play on stage. Filmed from a live performance, it is notable chiefly as a vehicle for star turns, especially for Mirren. The only scene in which she seems not in supreme command (but nearly) is Elizabeth’s interview with Margaret Thatcher. But then, that is in the script.

The Audience fares best as a play the same way filmed one-person biographical dramas do. This, even though there are strong vignettes by the “acting” Prime Ministers. The question of the quality of plays, especially large-cast classics, being broadcast live remains answered according to tastes for or against editing.




Key Subjects: 
The Audience, film, TV, Helen Mirren
Marie J. Kilker
Writer Bio: 
Marie Kilker retired as a career academic (Ph.D.) who taught on all levels, from second grade through graduate school and in adult education. She led in research and development initiatives (grants), won advising awards and directed nontraditional degree programs. She continues to be a part-time freelance writer, editor, speaker, with regular reviewing of theater and developing of proposals and projects
August 2013