“We only read about queens in fairy tales,” said Inna Churikova, who plays Elizabeth in the sellout production, with real corgis
As the curtain drew back and the actress playing the Queen on the day of her coronation was revealed, the audience burst into a round of applause.
The sumptuous dress, orb and sceptre are exact replicas of those used at the ceremony in 1953 and the corgis that scamper at her feet in another scene are real.
But the Queen, busby-wearing soldiers and courtiers are in a theatre in Moscow and are speaking Russian.
Despite UK-Russia relations being at their most tense since the end of the Cold War, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s drama The Audience, a hit for Helen Mirren in the UK, is playing to packed houses in Moscow.
Audiences have been pulled in by the star-value of the Soviet-era film legend Inna Churikova, who plays the Queen, but many are also charmed by a vision of what Russia might have been like without the 1917 revolution and the execution of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. “We only read about queens in fairy tales,” said Churikova.
Gleb Panfilov, the director, who has previously worked on a film about the demise of Nicholas II, said: “It’s a shame that it didn’t end for us like it ended for the British.”
Most of the play’s run at the Theatre of Nations is sold out, with tickets costing up to £200. The play appears to have tapped into a vein of nostalgia in Russian society for pre-revolution politics, culture and values.
Symbols from Russia’s empire of the tsars — from street names to statues — were restored after the fall of the Soviet Union and President Putin is said to have an admiration for that period. Last month he unveiled a wooden cross in the Kremlin, torn down by Lenin in the 1920s, marking the spot where Nicholas II’s uncle was assassinated by revolutionaries.
David Cameron (Oleg Maslennikov), Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill all make an appearance, but not Theresa MayDavid Cameron (Oleg Maslennikov), Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill all make an appearance, but not Theresa May
The play makes no mention of the Russian royal family, nor that the Queen’s grandfather, George V, was a cousin of Nicholas II. Neither does it touch on the perhaps uncomfortable fact that the United Kingdom refused to offer Nicholas II and his family exile before they were shot by Bolsheviks.
However, many Russian reviews — in generally very positive write-ups of the play — couldn’t help but recall their own history. “Spectators are involuntarily asked: ‘What if Russia’s monarchy had survived?’” according to a reviewer in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva. A review in Kommersant said: “The more detailed the picture of royal life becomes, the stronger the double-meaning.”
The Queen is not the only famous name in the play, which imagines the weekly meetings she sat through with the 12 prime ministers of her reign prior to Theresa May. Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron all make an appearance.
The conversations between monarch and prime minister have been altered to include subjects more familiar to a Russian audience. So the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, is discussed, as is Mikhail Gorbachev, last head of the Soviet Union. The Queen is also shown talking with Mr Cameron about Mr Putin and the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Churikova prefers not to talk about Russia-UK relations and contemporary politics, however. “Politics is politics and politicians have their own tasks. I think that Elizabeth II doesn’t just belong to the British but to the whole world.”