Sunday 17 March 2013
I went to see The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre this week. It is a study of the Queen and her weekly 20-minute conversation with the 12 prime ministers who’ve served during her 51-year reign. With Winston Churchill in 1952 she was shy and inexperienced; but by the time we got to David Cameron in 2013 she was an old pro, with no intention of taking the Pope’s way out and calling it a day.
Of many moments, four stood out. In 1956 she wasn’t prepared to be brushed off by Anthony Eden’s version of the Suez invasion: she’d read the cabinet papers; she knew he wasn’t telling the truth. In 2009 she’d heard gossip that Gordon Brown wasn’t flourishing, and she was prepared to entertain the possibility that he was facing depression – without any sense of disrespect or humiliating pity. In 1992 she was prepared to listen to John Major’s advice, in the face of Charles and Diana’s divorce, that the monarchy was in crisis, and significant gestures needed to be made – ones that she found painful and costly.
But most poignantly in 1975 she was the first to learn that Harold Wilson was realising his mind was deteriorating, and that he would have to stand down. This scene is mesmerising in its pathos and compassion. It’s a perfect blend of the public and the personal.
I found myself thinking that in all these roles the Queen had been like the church at its best. Challenging and prophetic, with Eden; caring and compassionate, with Brown; humble and penitent, with Major; wise and merciful, with Wilson. The play isn’t just a study in the monarchy; it’s a study in being present to the people of this country over half a century. I wonder if St Martin-in-the-Fields is truly all of these things.
Revd Dr Sam Wells