The King’s Speech, the true royal story told in an Academy Award-winning 2010 film, brings its American debut as a play to the National Theatre.
Early in, King George V (who in 1932 became the first British monarch to give a radio address) laments the demands of the modern media age. The gruff king (John Judd) notes that in the past, all a king needed to do was photograph well and not fall off his horse. Now a king needs to be able to go hat-in-hand to his subjects’ homes via radio.
His oldest son David (Jeff Parker) seems well-suited to the role. He is a dashingly handsome swan capable of preening about and speaking beautifully even when talking nonsense. However, David has a stubborn love for the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson (Tiffany Scott), who is viewed as an unsuitable mate for a King and titular head of the Church of England. Worse, he places personal happiness above royal duties, questioning the value of being king if he can’t do as he pleases.
Unfortunately, his second son Albert (known to his family as Bertie and more cruelly addressed by David as “Buh-Buh-Buh-Bertie”) has a stammering problem that makes him a family disappointment. In an effort to help Bertie (Nick Westrate,) his wife Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey) contracts an unconventional speech therapist.
The King’s Speech closes February 16, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Lionel Logue (Michael Bakkensen) is a cheeky Australian who is a failed actor but who has reinvented himself as a London speech therapist. His familiarity, his unconventional methods, and his insistence on dictating the course of therapy (“My castle, my rules”) result in a bumpy and tempestuous relationship with his famous client that fractures midway through the story. Following the death of King George V and the increasingly apparent unsuitability of David (now King Edward VIII) for the ruling role, Bertie returns to Lionel for assistance.
When reviewing a play that essentially has the same plot as a popular film (both written by David Seidler), the logical question is how the stage version compares to the film and whether it adds any value to the story. The play actually adds a surprising amount of historical and dramatic content.
The play better illustrates the context of the events, making clear how the British royalty was facing an existential challenge to its existence from Edward VIII’s actions and his Nazi sympathies. An ambitious Archbishop of Canterbury (Noble Shropshire) and an acerbic Winston Churchill (Kevin Gudahl) help provide the needed exposition in a deft and entertaining manner.
While the play maintains the focus on the relationship of Bertie and Lionel, it also adds to our understanding of the emotional isolation and sadness of Bertie, as well as gaining insight into the failed acting ambitions of Lionel. The roles of Bertie’s wife Elizabeth and Lionel’s wife Myrtle (Elizabeth Ledo) are expanded, including Myrtle’s unhappiness as being disdained as a provincial in class-conscious London and her desire to return to Australia.
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It’s true that the play lacks the wonderful production design and innovative visual stylings of the film. Director Michael Wilson and Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet wisely don’t attempt to rival those features, using relatively simple staging complemented by Hana S. Kim’s projections to help convey the grandeur of the settings. David C. Woolard’s sharp costuming and John Gromada’s music design also help immerse the audience in the overall historical setting and tone of the story.
The entire ensemble acts brilliantly. Ultimately, however, the success of the play depends upon the two lead characters and both shine in this production.
Nick Westrate conveys great emotional depth to his portrayal of Bertie. We see him slowly evolve and grow into his role as King George VI. Michael Bakkensen is an entertaining odd duck who helps convey his growing respect for both his historic opportunity and the man who becomes both his ruler and his friend.
The play works on multiple levels. It illustrates the transition from the Victorian era to our modern media-saturated world. It is a smashing good story made all the more remarkable by being true. Finally, it provides a fascinating look behind the royal curtain that continues to fascinate worldwide audiences to this day.
The whole play leads up to a famous speech Bertie gives as king to help rally a nation under attack by Nazi German. The speech and the relationship between Bertie and Lionel provide a warm tug on the audience’s emotional heartstrings that lasts long after the final curtain.
The King’s Speech may prove to be the crown jewel of the National Theatre’s ambitious 2019-2020 Broadway season. If you have seen the film version, available on Netflix, this immaculately acted production adds added enough historical and emotional context to earn another viewing. If you have not seen the film version, the play offer’s a richly rewarding story of an unlikely friendship developed in a world of uncommon responsibility.
The King’s Speech by David Seidler. Directed by Michael Wilson. Featuring Nick Westrate, Michael Bakkensen, Harry Belden, Jeff Diebold, Tony Dobrowolski, Kevin Gudahl, Michelle Jasso, John Judd, Maggie Lacey, Elizabeth Ledo, David Lively, Tim Monsion, Jeff Parker, Chad Patterson, Tiffany Scott, Noble Shropshire, and Trevor Strahan. Scenic Design: Kevin Depinet. Lighting Design: Howell Binkley. Costume Design: David C. Woolard. Sound Design and Original Music Composition: John Gromada. Projection Design: Hana S. Kim. Production Manager: Bethany Weinstein Stewert. Dialect Coach: Kate DeVore. Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist. Presented by the National Theatre. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.