Russia puts the Queen centre stage in Moscow's The Audience

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

Media caption,
The Queen is centre stage in Russian production of The Audience

The final chairs scrape into place, mobile phones click off and the curtain in a Moscow theatre slides open on Buckingham Palace.

Peter Morgan's The Audience is a very British drama, which imagines the private weekly encounters between Queen Elizabeth II and a whole series of prime ministers.

But it is being staged in Russia as relations with the UK have seriously soured.

That has turned the performance into an act of cultural diplomacy.

Image caption,
Inna Churikova - a star of the Russian stage - plays the Queen

As a woman in a neat red skirt-suit emerges onto the set, the audience breaks into applause.

Inna Churikova, a legend of Soviet cinema and stage, has been transformed into the Queen for this lavish production.

"It started with me looking for a beautiful role for my mother," explains Ivan Panfilov, who is the show's producer as well as Ms Churikova's son.

He even bought the "Queen" some pet corgis for the role, just like the original.

But Mr Panfilov also had another agenda.

"We wanted to pay tribute and respect to the Queen and to Britain. Because no matter what happens in policy, people still find a place for each other in their hearts," he says.

Frosty relations

There has been plenty of real-life drama in British-Russian relations lately. Moscow's envoy to the UN Security Council, Vladimir Safronkov, flung diplomacy out of the window to harangue his British counterpart in snarling, crude Russian.

Days before, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had called off talks in Moscow and proposed fresh sanctions for Russia's policy on Syria.

Image caption,
The play was staged at the Theatre of Nations in central Moscow

But backstage at Moscow's Theatre of Nations it's a different story.

"I'm fascinated by this woman and how she got the world to bend the way she wanted," enthuses Galina Tyunina. The actor, sporting tweed and clutching a small leather handbag, is playing a Russian Margaret Thatcher.

A man marching up and down in the corridor, arms swinging, says he's practising his "David Cameron walk".

The real-life Mr Cameron was keen on doing business with Russia when he first became PM. Then came Russia's annexation of Crimea, conflict in eastern Ukraine and sanctions.

Relations headed downhill, fast.

'Wonderful, living soul'

Image caption,
Gorevoy's Churchill: Many Russians still admire the British wartime leader

"The tension between Russia and the United Kingdom, personally I don't like it at all," declares a remarkably life-like "Winston Churchill", complete with bow-tie, cane and jowls.

"We need to put us together. To know each other better. Definitely," actor Mikhail Gorevoy adds in English.

The "Queen" herself is openly enamoured of her character and admits to nerves despite her vast experience.

"This role is very worrying. It's a great responsibility. Because [I'm playing] the wonderful, living soul that is the British Queen," Inna Churikova explains. "I feel in love with this wonderful woman," the leading lady adds.

Not all the very British political jokes in this play make sense here, but the audience is curious and forgiving.

"It's fascinating to look at this culture. We have great respect for characters like Churchill and esteem for his statesmanship," Dmitry comments, during the first interval.

"It's far from our life and political system," Gala admits. "But England is a kind of example, for imitation."

The play's producers are hoping their Russian-British fusion can help build bridges. At the very least it is an oasis of friendship in an increasingly hostile climate.

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