Even kings struggle to speak
By the 1930s, British monarchs could no longer rule simply by appearing in public, brandishing medals on their military jackets. Instead, they communicated with their people by radio. But Prince Albert, second in line to the throne, was unable to speak without a stammer and subsequent public humiliation.
The King’s Speech, at the National Theatre through Feb. 16, delves into the life of a stuttering prince who eventually becomes King George VI during a time of global upheaval.
The play, written by David Seidler, was originally a 2010 Oscar-winning film starring Colin Firth. In 2012, it first took to the stage at Wyndham’s Theatre in London.
Director Michael Wilson brings Seidler’s vision to D.C. with a week-long run of The King’s Speech at the National Theatre. Starring Drama Desk Award-winner Nick Westrate as Prince Albert, the play personalizes a tumultuous time in history, with the emergence of fascism, and technology, in the political sphere.
Finding his voice
Bertie, as Prince Albert’s family calls him, has been stuttering since he was four or five years old. When he becomes nervous, especially in front of a microphone, it gets even worse, making it almost impossible to complete a sentence. There is one person, however, who believes in his strength and intelligence: his wife, Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey).
Facing the imminent death of Bertie’s father, King George V (John Judd), Elizabeth seeks out a speech therapist. Lionel Logue (Michael Bakkensen), an Australian with a bombastic personality who secretly dreams of being an actor, is her last resort.
When Lionel meets the prince, he refuses to treat him as such. “We must be true equals,” the speech therapist says. He calls him Bertie, ignoring the prince’s obvious discomfort with a stranger addressing him by a family nickname.
Lionel talks to Bertie as a friend, questioning him about his childhood traumas. The speech therapist notices that, while discussing a difficult topic, the prince’s stammer emerges. It’s not a physiological condition; it’s psychological.
During their sessions, Lionel helps Bertie become more confident, which is especially entertaining for the audience as the prince shouts “bugger, bugger, bugger” and other curses to practice his diction. All the while, the speech therapist hopes his work will help Bertie become king.
A new king
As next in line for the throne, Bertie’s brother, David (Jeff Parker), is a problem for the British monarchy because of his affair with a married woman, Wallis Simpson (Tiffany Scott). In addition, she’s salaciously American and posed to be “Queen Wallis of Baltimore,” as Lionel puts it, after the king’s death.
As the play progresses, it becomes obvious that David and Wallis’s true objective is power. They begin to form a relationship with Hitler, even as war is ramping up between the two countries. The affair, however, becomes too much of a political nightmare. Less than a year after becoming king, David abdicates the throne to his stammering brother.
As his coronation ceremony approaches, Bertie leans on Lionel to help him speak clearly. He even invites the speech therapist to join the royal seating area, like a true member of the family. With a projection against the stage, Winston Churchill (Kevin Gudahl) and priest Cosmo Lang (Noble Shropshire) watch the black-and-white film of the ceremony, noting how the king expressed his thoughts aloud almost perfectly, thanks to Lionel.
These cinematic productions displayed on the stage walls, courtesy of projection designer Hana S. Kim, as well as the echoing reverberation of recordings, with the help of sound designer John Gromada, transport the audience to the World War II era. The play’s technological enhancements, along with light direction by Howell Binkley, often led to enrapturing scene transitions, especially during Bertie’s anxiety-inducing public speeches. Other scene transitions, however, were distracting, with furniture-moving during dialogue or without the cloak of complete darkness.
The play had an unpropitious start. In act one, Westrate’s stutter seemed forced, and more than 10 characters were rapidly introduced, muddling the chain of events and relationships. The second act, however, more than made up for it with action-packed scenes and heartwarming interactions.
At its core, The King’s Speech is about a boy who disinherited his confidence and became so consumed by anxiety that he lost his voice. He was mocked by everyone, including his brother, father and nanny. He never would have had a chance without people like his wife and Lionel, who believed in him. Prince Albert had to find himself before he could lead his people. Good kings aren’t born; they’re made.
The King’s Speech will run until Sunday, February 16 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets cost $54 to $114. For more information, visit thenationaldc.com.