This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
What is expected of a king? Why do so many people still revere the monarchy when, as the Sex Pistols forcibly asserted, “there’s no future, and England’s dreaming”? What use is a monarch that cannot speak for his people?
These are just some of the questions deliberated over in The King’s Speech, David Seidler’s play about the trials and tribulations of King George VI in the late 1930s, best known for its 2010 film adaptation starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. It is a deeply thoughtful play, which treads solemnly through a momentous period of history, weighed down by its own significance but brought joyously to life by a charming central relationship. And it provides a convincing response to Johnny Rotten’s raucous lyrics.
It is 1936 and Hitler’s rhetoric is uniting Germany under the Nazis. In England, the death of George V (William Hoyland) and the irresponsible philandering of his heir, Edward VIII (Jamie Hinde), are causing a crisis amongst the ruling class. Edward’s brother, the future King George VI, (Raymond Coulthard) a reserved man with a pronounced stammer, is suddenly the potential figurehead of a nation at war. In an effort to cure himself of his speech impediment and overcome his debilitating fear of public speaking, the future king turns to Lionel Logue (Jason Donovan), an Australian speech therapist who insists on calling him by his pet name Bertie.
Coulthard is magnificent as the upright, prudish, stuttering Bertie. With the odd smile and the occasional joke amidst his otherwise austere façade, he easily convinces the audience that he is a man with a heart of gold, trapped by unwanted responsibilities and frustrated by his own disability. Donovan’s performance is equally laudable – his Logue is playful yet never insincere, proud but eternally friendly. It is the depth of character that both capture with such understatement that truly impresses.
As Donovan’s impudent Logue and the king hesitantly become friends, the audience is slowly drawn into their unique relationship. The viewer peeks curiously into private affairs of a man who lives his life in the public eye, and is delighted to discover the scraps of humanity that are littered throughout. They are touching, surprising, and frequently funny. “F***, f***, F***!” he cries during one of Logue’s exercises – a liberating loosening of the collar for the royal, a satisfying (not to mention hilarious) glimpse of the person underneath the fusty ornamentation for the audience.
Yet as enjoyable as the haven of Logue’s office is, the menaces of the outside world loom large outside. The irresponsible dalliance of Edward VIII (played with irritating smarminess by Hinde), his abdication, and the impending war with Germany – all are given their due attention. BBC voices announce every development, Nick Powell’s irresistible score swells evocatively, Churchill (Nicholas Blane) and Archbishop Cosmo Lang (Martin Turner) debate the fate of the nation, and Bertie stands alone amidst it all.
The heavy atmosphere is augmented by Tom Piper’s stark yet recognisably pre-war set. The rich, wooden tones of Logue’s office are somehow comforting, but the cold stone of Westminster Abbey and the echo that accompanies it are less so. A cold, metallic radio microphone regularly drops from the ceiling to hang menacingly in front of the king, a reminder of his duty and his fears.
The King’s Speech is delightfully conceived, both in narrative and design, competently acted and impressively pulled together by director Roxana Silbert. It is a play shackled firmly to the weighty tome of history, but at its heart is a story of friendship and one man’s struggle to make himself heard. And it is thoroughly moving. Almost enough to turn Johnny Rotten royalist.