On the face of it, “The King’s Speech” would appear to be the ultimate in cynical deja vu — except that David Seidler’s play predates his Oscar-winning screenplay. Those wanting a wholly different take on the now-celebrated story of King George VI aka Bertie overcoming his stammer may be disappointed, but Seidler’s stage version offers fuller historical and political background to the story. Led by Charles Edwards in commanding form in the Colin Firth role, the stately production is handsome in every way.
Although written for the stage, the weakest element of the script is its reliance upon exposition. The play runs chronologically through the real-life events from the dying days of George V (Joss Ackland) through the political chicanery surrounding Edward VII’s abdication crisis to Bertie’s accession to the throne and the outbreak of World War II.
To explain all that from multiple perspectives, Seidler writes innumerable short scenes — some only as long as a mere exchange of information. On screen, the use of cutting, multiple locations, camerawork and, especially, reaction shots in close-up can divert attention from the information overload. Designer Anthony Ward’s solution is to keep everything moving. His sets are kept to a suggestive minimum — a couple of evocative period chairs here, a table there — and has them picked out by Mark Henderson’s pools of light against a heavy black framed scrim on a turntable working overtime.
Whirled round into view, the actors, as elegantly dressed as the sets, deliver precisely what is expected of them. One of the gains is the character of Myrtle (Charlotte Randle), wife to unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue — a nicely authoritative Jonathan Hyde in the role created by Geoffrey Rush. Barely a presence in the movie, here she is seriously unhappy. She counterpoints Logue’s position and also underlines the fact that she and Logue are Australians and therefore outsiders to the rigorously class-bound Britain.
The weak character of, and risks surrounding, Bertie’s brother Edward VIII (suitably slimy Daniel Betts) and his dangerous Nazi sympathies are also fleshed out. Discussions with Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) reveal more of what was at stake over his insistence upon marrying the notorious American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The sense of the constitutional crisis to which the country was headed ups the ante for Bertie’s unlooked-for rise.
Edwards is more than just technically convincing as a man battling to overcome a fatal flaw. Robbed of the movie close-ups Firth so impressively used to reveal the pain behind the eyes, Edwards takes the stammer into his whole body. He vividly conveys a kind of physical and emotional blockage which prevents him from speaking. But he also allows audiences to see how this is at war with the stiff, formal demeanor permanently required of a man of his station. It’s not his costumes that give him status and emotional weight, it’s his performance.
Adrian Noble’s well-cast, neat production uses English orchestral music of the period to evoke and build mood. That’s clearest in the scene surrounding the eponymous speech. The climax is timed exactly to Elgar’s “Nimrod,” a noble piece held close to British hearts. And while that undeniably trades on the music’s extra-mural associations, that’s in keeping with an event which, after all, is already trading on theatergoers’ extra-mural knowledge of the movie. Not really an evening for newcomers, this is a safe choice for traditionalists in search of polite entertainment in which they won’t be disturbed by the shock of the new.