It’s probably the nearest I will ever get to being the Queen. In a private room, furnished with scarlet and gilt chairs, I am waiting for an audience with the prime minister. In fact, I am about to meet five British premiers in quick succession – Elizabeth II has chalked up 12 over the 60 years of her reign.
The politicians I am to meet are Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Or rather, their stand-ins: the five actors who will play these luminaries in Peter Morgan’s new play The Audience.
The Queen holds regular, private meetings with her PM. Morgan, through the audacity of theatre, imagines what might go on behind those closed doors. The list of characters reads like a Who’s Who of recent British political history and it is, admits Richard McCabe who plays Harold Wilson, a “terrifying” prospect.
Playing real people is very much in vogue. Daniel Day-Lewis is up for his third Oscar for Lincoln and you will soon be able to watch new film portrayals of both Alfred Hitchcock and Apple supremo Steve Jobs. Oscar Wilde and his lover Bosie are in London’s West End in The Judas Kiss, while at the National Theatre James Graham’s This House bustles with 1970s politicians. But what is the appeal of watching an actor take on a real person? How does it differ from playing a fictitious character? And how do you set about it?
Robert Hardy’s stint as Churchill in The Audience will be his ninth as the venerable leader (just as Helen Mirren’s performance as the Queen will be her third); Hardy reports that it doesn’t get any easier.
“I’m rather struggling to get back into his skin again,” he admits. “Through all the attempts that I’ve made on this Everest of a man, I’ve clambered and dangled about in the foothills and at best I’ve occasionally seen the peak in the distance with the sun on it. That’s the nearest I’ve got.”
For Hardy, the starting point is the voice. He has 24 records of Churchill’s speeches, which he listens to each time he plays him. “I got a way into him through that: just listening, hour after hour. It is hard. It’s high. There’s that r-r-rasp to it,” he says, slipping into Churchill’s unmistakable slurring delivery. “And there’s the way he speaks: the modulations.”
For all the actors, voice is crucial. More than physical appearance, voice seems to distinguish a person and nail a likeness. Nathaniel Parker, who plays Gordon Brown, has spent time studying his distinctive chin movement and figuring out how to reproduce it.
“What is it that triggers that and when doesn’t he do it?” Parker asks. “He doesn’t do it when he’s got a big speech. Otherwise, [it’s as though] there’s cold metal at the back of his teeth and when he breathes in too fast he touches it – that’s what it feels like. You rehearse it until it becomes instinctive.”
Rufus Wright, who takes on the current PM David Cameron, adds that analysing the mechanics of a person’s speech can reveal deeper truths. “You watch, you learn and you copy, but through that mimicry you sometimes see what’s at the root of his physical attitude. There’s the gesture with the half-clenched fists and the saying, ‘Let’s be clear about this’. It’s upper class but it’s slightly knocked off.”
Fictitious characters don’t demand such detailed scrutiny. Audiences might have a mental image of Hamlet but they can’t nip online and view footage of the man himself, as they can with Cameron or Brown. And for the audience much of the enjoyment of an actor’s performance lies in checking off those definitive speech patterns, tics and mannerisms.
Haydn Gwynne, who plays Margaret Thatcher, says the job is “totally different” to normal. “Thatcher’s presentation is a huge part of the package and that’s quite intimidating to take on. For me it’s been quite helpful to start with some elements of caricature as a way of getting in.”
But if finding a politician’s idiosyncrasies is the stock-in-trade of a skilled impressionist, how does the job of the actor differ? Parker says that mannerisms only help as a starting point. “I think you pick your moments as an actor to do the stereotypes that everyone understands. But there are only so many times you can do it, although the real person would do it the whole time.”
“If you do it on stage all the time it can be distracting,” agrees Wright. “So you give an impression of it to convince people, and then you leave it. To tell the truth of a character you often have to get rid of the extraneous stuff and concentrate on what’s underneath.”
Curiously, then, it seems that to portray your subject convincingly, you may have to tone down the real thing. For actor Freddie Fox the essential difference between an impressionist and an actor is that of intent. “Whenever we see Rory Bremner or Jon Culshaw doing George W. Bush, we say, ‘That’s amazing!’ We admire them doing the trick. Whereas with an actor, we have to forget that there’s a trick there: we have to suspend our disbelief and buy into George Bush actually being on the stage.”
Fox is playing Bosie, Oscar Wilde’s lover, in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. He doesn’t face the daunting possibility, as Wright and Parker do, of his character turning up at the theatre in person. But to play Bosie, he had to overcome the popular perception of him as a selfish brat.
“The last thing you can do is judge your character while you’re playing them,” he says. “You have to find the reasons why they do what they do.”
All the actors echo this sentiment. Whatever your views, you find a point of sympathy with your character. Again this differs crucially from the impressionist, who often seeks to satirise or ridicule. And sometimes it can be tiny details that the audience doesn’t even see that help an actor to get into the skin of a person. Charles Edwards, portraying Tory whip Bernard Weatherill in This House, discovered that Weatherill always carried a thimble in his pocket. So Edwards does the same: that tiny, unseen prop, he says, helps him to get “the character of the man”.
There can be a playful element to portraying a real person, as audience and actor conspire to evoke the real thing. But Rufus Wright suggests that in The Audience this imaginative leap has a serious import. Like Shakespeare’s history plays, he says, the piece envisages powerful leaders in a different light, away from the public glare. “It’s about the privacy of very important people.”
‘The Audience’, Gielgud, London, February 15 to June 15, www.theaudienceplay.com; ‘This House’, National, London, February 23 to April 8, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk; ‘The Judas Kiss’, Duke of York’s, London, to April 6, www.thejudaskiss.co.uk