The King's Speech, Wyndham's Theatre | reviews, news & interviews
The King's Speech, Wyndham's Theatre
The King's Speech, Wyndham's Theatre
David Seidler's Oscar-winning tale of abdication and speech therapy makes an easeful transition to the stage
Little more than a year since The King’s Speech hit pay dirt at the Oscars, David Seidler’s tale of a prince stuttering between duty and impediment takes to the stage. Rather than a speedy and cynical exploitation of the film’s success, the move actually reflects Seidler’s original ambition for his story; and while we might reasonably have feared déjà vu and a pale shadow of the film, what we discover is a thematically richer, yet equally delightful experience.
For those who have been in a different realm these past 12 months, the king in question is George VI, who reluctantly replaced his brother Edward VIII when the latter abdicated for the love of Mrs Simpson, then immediately had the wretched job of accompanying the country through World War II. When the nation needed its monarch to sound, if not actually feel bold and resolute, the poor man had the most appalling stammer. As Seidler has him pitifully observe: “The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.”
Seidler puts meat on the historical and political context of his story
The play’s title cleverly refers both to the impediment, and to the radio address that the new king had to make to the nation on the eve of war in 1939. Opening his story several years before, Seidler charts the treatment that will eventually make that address possible, courtesy of a most peculiar speech therapist.
Following his disastrous speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in 1925, the then Duke of York (Charles Edwards) is at the end of his tether. His wife Elizabeth (Emma Fielding) decides to try a practitioner who is not in the palace’s phone book. Their last hope – God forbid – is a colonial, the Australian Lionel Logue (Jonathan Hyde, pictured below right with Edwards).
Logue’s lack of kowtowing before the prince – his insistence on calling his appalled client “Bertie” and mantra of “my castle, my rules” – is unheard of, his understanding of the psychological dimension of stammering a challenge to Royal decorum. As important to Logue as relaxation and muscle exercises is what is going on inside the prince’s head, the years of persecution at the hands of his family, and consequent emotional turmoil. To Bertie, the idea of sharing his innermost emotions, with a commoner no less, is preposterous. Layer upon layer of delicious culture clash await.
At the heart of the play, as of the film, is the joust between these two very different men. At first, it is extremely comic. “They’re idiots,” snaps Logue when he is brought up to date on the prince’s previous therapists. “They’ve all been knighted,” retorts the prince. “It makes it official then.” But their encounters also become increasingly moving, as Bertie lets his guard down and discovers his first, real friend. The turning point comes as Logue allows the prince to share his hobby, and paint one of his model aircraft – with the occasional helping hand, all need for deference gone. Beautifully played by the actors, here a piece that is all about language needs none at all.
Departing from his screenplay, however, Seidler now puts meat on the historical and political context of his story, notably the complex reasons for Edward’s abdication – not just dismay at his love for the divorcée Simpson, but fear of the king’s dumb and rebellious complicity with the Nazis. The supporting players are much more present – Churchill (Ian McNeice), Baldwin (David Killick) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Feast) commenting and manoeuvring behind the scenes.
Churchill, played with typical robustness by McNeice, is of course the most interesting, not least for his pragmatism: at first he advocates patience with Edward, “who speaks beautifully, even if he speaks nonsense”, a handy weapon against a Führer who is “mesmerising millions” with his oratory. It’s when Churchill realises the error of that logic that Bertie’s speech therapy becomes even more crucial. Later, as the new king determines the title his brother will now carry, we see that he has learned politics as well as diction.
Seidler also adds a dimension to Logue’s own story, revealing the sacrifice made by his wife Myrtle (Charlotte Randle) in remaining in a country that treats Australians with contempt – something her husband, the would-be thespian, feels in one failed audition after another.
Edwards delicately conveys Bertie’s pain and frustration, the sense of a man guided by duty
The strength of the film was always in the writing and its delivery; as film direction, it was a tad over-rated. In contrast, the stagecraft here is impressive. Designer Anthony Ward places at the centre of the stage a giant, wood-panelled revolving frame, a gauze stretched across it that can be transparent or not according to the light. On a practical level, this allows speedy scene changes – and this is a very pacy production – and acts as a screen for the projection of archive TV footage, of the throngs of people congregating for Bertie’s keynote addresses; but it also provides director Adrian Noble with a perfect device by which to suggest the degree of acting, of show that the characters must practice, Royals and politicians alike, as they are variously revealed and concealed by the frame, sometimes dancing, literally, around it.
Opening at Wyndham’s after a UK warm-up, the impression is of a cast already in their stride – and putting memory of their film counterparts easily to rest. The leads, in particular, are exemplary. Edwards delicately conveys Bertie’s pain and frustration, the sense of a man guided by duty, but less than happy about where that must take him; his microscopic reactions to every one of Logue’s challenges to etiquette are a joy. The Australian-born Hyde presents a chap fuelled by joviality – and it's infectious.
It was a pleasure to see the octogenarian Joss Ackland as George V, still with every ounce of his belligerent power, summing up the predicament of his family with the advent of that “devilish device”, the radio. It used to be that all a king needed to do was look smart in uniform and not fall off his horse, he laments. “Now we must become the lowest of the low; we must become actors.” This piece belongs on the stage.
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