The route from film to stage is now a well-established one but, for The King’s Speech, the journey is slightly more complex. Originally written as a stage play, it was never produced but instead jumped straight to the big screen. Following the huge success of the film, the journey has now gone full-circle with the play finally getting an airing.
The film is something of a Sword of Damocles hanging over the stage production; while the cinema success has raised awareness of the story and provides its own advertising impetus, it also is perhaps too recent a memory, inviting audiences to make comparison between film and stage.
Prior to the film, the story of how the future King George VI managed his stammer was a fairly hidden part of royal history. Now thanks to cinema it’s a well-trodden tale.
In many ways though the stage is a more suitable home for what is, at its heart, a tale of the relationship between two men thrown together in unusual circumstances. David Seidler’s script focuses on the subtle shift in the balance of power and the growing friendship and understanding between the Monarch and his speech therapist. Adrian Noble’s direction sensibly focuses on the two main protagonists, showing just enough of the pressures of family and Court impacting both men but never allowing that central duo to slip from attention. Anthony Ward’s monochromatic revolving set adds a cinematic feel of its own; its revolving picture frame allowing both archive newsreel to be shown as well as revealing scene transitions.
There are strong performances across the company. Daniel Betts as a coldly detached Edward VIII, totally consumed by his love for Wallace Simpson (Lisa Baird) and therefore blind to the impending threat of war. Michael Feast gives a suitable obsequious Archbishop of Canterbury, while Emma Fielding is suitably regally aloof as Queen Elizabeth.
Of course, regardless of the strengths of the ensemble, this is, essentially, a two-man show. Charles Edwards and Jonathan Hyde more than match their big screen counterparts and in many ways dig deeper into the characters of these two men who, though initially seem poles apart, have more in common that either would like to admit.
Edwards captures perfectly the paradox of a man who fears public appearances yet understands his duty to carry out those responsibilities, a man overshadowed by a more flamboyant brother and an imposing father. Capturing the pain of public speaking and the frustration this causes this complex man, Edwards delivers a beautifully observed performance.
On the other side of the royal vs. commoner equation, Joanthan Hyde’s Lionel Louge proves to be more than a match to Royal protocol. With typical Antipodean directness Louge’s approach to helping the future King is unorthodox but Hyde also conveys the respect Louge has for his patient. Hyde gives Louge a sense of determination but tempered with frustration and a real desire to help those with speech impediments.
There’s a real connection that hints that Louge may have been the first person, inside or outside the Royal household, that ‘Bertie’ opened up to and shared his feelings with. Of course, in this more modern ‘touchy-feely’ age, we expect our Royals to be more visible but, in 1936, the Monarchy was still a much more insular organisation, full of mystique and centuries-old etiquette.
In many ways The King’s Speech itself harks back to those bygone times, a traditional play that doesn’t break any boundaries. What it does do, however, is highlight a key part in the modernisation of British Monarchy and the struggles to give a nervous King his voice. Remove the titles, pomp and crown, however, and you have a moving tale of how two men, from wildly different backgrounds, can overcome those class barriers to form a real friendship. That’s a message well worth shouting about.