From ingénue to royal institution, actor Theresa Healey brings Queen Elizabeth II’s remarkable 65-year reign to the stage.
At a stage in her career when roles seem restricted to “doddery grandmother, sad and pathetic cougar, or wives with no lives”, portraying the world’s most famous woman in the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of The Audience (8-23 May) is a gift.
You can spend hours debating the future of the monarchy, its relevance in a changing New Zealand society and the Hollywood-like celebrity of the younger royals, but Healey says you’ve got to give credit where credit’s due: the head of the Windsor family has stamina.
“For me, she’s like God or my mother – she’s always been around,” says Healey. “She’s stuck it out. She has been through so much, yet she still manages to come out as a very kind and compassionate woman. It’s her will and longevity that’s her strength.”
The Audience is the work of British writer Peter Morgan, who scripted both The Queen (the 2006 film starring Helen Mirren) and the hugely popular Netflix series The Crown. Nearly every week during her 67-year reign, the Queen has met at Buckingham Palace with each of her 13 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill (played here by Ian Mune) to Margaret Thatcher (Hera Dunleavy) to David Cameron (Adam Gardiner). The current British PM (at least at the time of writing), Theresa May, doesn’t feature.
There’s an unspoken agreement that what’s discussed is never shared, so the play imagines what might have gone on. “She has a different relationship with each one of them,” says Healey. “She gets annoyed with some of them, wants some of them to ‘man up’, some to let go of a bit of control. Some, she just really enjoys their company.”
The script delivers some Yes Minister humour, along with a solid dose of history, proving the old adage about history repeating. “She had the same conversation with Anthony Eden about the Suez Canal [in the 50s] as she did with Tony Blair about the Iraq War: ‘Are you sure we need to engage the military? Is there another way?’ She has seen it all.”
Healey became a household name here in the 90s, playing Nurse Carmen Roberts on Shortland Street, and has been a regular on stage and television (including a stint on Dancing with the Stars) ever since.
She says portraying the Queen over a period of 60 years has been made easier by the fact that every single milestone of Elizabeth’s life has been documented – including her ever-present handbag. “I’ve read it’s a talisman. Different positions mean different things. If it’s on the ground it’s, ‘Come and help me now.’ In the left hand, it means one thing; the right, another.”
Her Majesty turns 93 just before The Audience opens. What will the monarchy look like without her? “It will be very interesting to see what happens,” says Healey. “She’s been the one keeping it together. I can take Elizabeth II seriously because she actually lives that motto of being dedicated to her people and her God. I can’t quite take that seriously with Charles...”
Image above: Actor Theresa Healey channels England’s queen at Alberton, a historic home in Auckland, ahead of her royal role in The Audience.
This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.