Given that so many plays and films these days are based on, drawn from or inspired by each other, it is worth examining the differences between these media and the treatments they require. The King’s Speech, making its DC debut at the National Theatre until Sunday, is an excellent case in point.
In a way, this is something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Playwright David Seidler originally wanted to stage the true story of Bertie, later King George VI, overcoming his severe stammer to lead Britain through the dark years of World War II. He was not granted permission, however, until after the death of the Queen Mother in 2002. When he finally returned to the story in 2005, it was reconceived as a movie – which went on to earn 12 Oscar nominations and win four: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Colin Firth and Best Screenplay for Seidler himself.
Not willing to rest on his laurels, Seidler, who himself suffered as a child from a stammer brought on by losing family members in the Holocaust, turned his screenplay back into a stage script. The play premiered in the UK in 2011 to strong reviews, but not enough time had passed since the film, and the West End production closed after two months.
Now, at long last, the stage version of The King’s Speech has reached the US, and it both resembles and differs from its cinematic older brother in telling ways. Coming from the same pen, many of the scenes are word-for-word duplicates, but they are presented quite differently. Film is most often a naturalistic and subtle medium, full of close-ups and details that capture the essence and emotions of the characters. Theater, by necessity, must be larger and more abstract. A large playhouse demands a broader perspective — literally.
This is abundantly clear at the National in the striking set by Kevin Depinet that greets the audience when they enter. It presents a strong forced perspective view of a huge room or corridor, with projections on the walls representing different venues — Buckingham Palace, Harley Street offices, Westminster Abbey and even Nazi rallies. The negative space above the converging walls forms a looming, black “V” that hangs over the protagonist Bertie (Nick Westrate) like a sword of Damocles — or like the huge “V” in the name of his father, King George V, whose oppressive presence overpowers his life.
As this broader canvas demands, Michael Wilson’s staging is fluid and capable. The footmen and courtiers whisk in chairs, desks, thrones and even a casket with the silent efficiency one would expect from the royal household. Scenes that in the film are carefully detailed by real settings are quickly indicated by a flash of a stained-glass window or a newsreel on the wall.
The film presented a gentle, sympathetic portrayal of all the characters, including Bertie’s frightening father and even Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, whose obsession with each other precipitated a constitutional crisis. Perhaps it was too gentle; it was criticized for glossing over the politics of the era, including the appeasement of Hitler and Edward VIII’s Nazi sympathies.
The play takes a harsher tone. The characters are drawn with a broader and more vivid brush. While the movie was a comforting story of adversity overcome by courage and friendship in a time of crisis, the play reveals more conflict. The threats to Britain and the throne are made clear by politicians like Churchill (Kevin Gudahl) and Stanley Baldwin (David Lively). Edward (Jeff Parker) and Wallis (Tiffany Scott) appear not only as selfish hedonists but as full-fledged Nazis, poised to swoop in and retake the throne as Hitler’s puppet monarchs if Bertie fails. There is even a moment when the amusingly sour Archbishop of Canterbury (Noble Shropshire) reveals his own lust for power. Bertie bitterly reveals some details about his father’s death that throw cynical political realities into sharp relief.
With all these conflicts, one hardly needs more. It seems unnecessary to introduce a subplot in which the speech therapist’s wife Myrtle (Elizabeth Ledo) taxes him with her disappointment that he broke his promise to take her back to their native Australia — as if his effort to help the King stand up to Hitler and save the Commonwealth is some sort of betrayal of her. This creates a strange rivalry between her and Queen Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey), who is much sharper and more snobbish than in the movie, and at one point compares herself to Lady Macbeth.
The actors embody the main roles with the conviction and commanding presence the stage demands. Michael Bakkensen imbues Lionel Loeb, the speech therapist, with more passion and conflict than Geoffrey Rush’s unflappable film version. And although Nick Westrate, as Bertie/George VI, can’t provide the subtlety and interior detail that won Firth an Oscar, he portrays the reluctant King with frustration and fire that fills the theater.
All in all, this is a fascinating play, for what it reveals about both the demands of duty in a momentous crisis in British history and the different artistic demands of film vs. stage.
It is only in town for a few days. See it while you can.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission.