BWW Review: THE KING'S SPEECH at DC's National Theatre, from the Perspective of Someone Who Stutters
Full disclosure time. I've been writing for Broadway World for years and I can tear apart productions with the best of them, but I am going to be blatantly honest and say that I approach David Seidler's play, The King's Speech, with a very specific point of view made possible by my own life experience. I happen to be an adult who stutters. It's not the barely detectable variety either. Depending on the day, it's the kind of stutter where the Metro train might actually arrive before I get a sentence out. Even if I do get the sentence out, I might have to write it down on piece of paper or type it into my phone so you understand what I want to convey.
So, to that end, it was a bit of a coin toss on how I would react to this production, now briefly playing at The National Theatre through February 16 as part of a mini North American tour. To put it succinctly, my feelings toward how stuttering is treated in most entertainment mediums are pretty complex. I can become angry about misrepresentation (whether intentional or not), or if the playwright includes stuttering simply for dramatic or comedic effect, or to spur a particular reaction from the audience ("oh that poor person; he or she is so inspirational").
I am happy to say the play - which predates the award-winning 2010 film and has been tweaked since it premiered on London's West End in 2012 - does not tread into the territory that makes me furious. While the historical story features plenty of inspirational moments, Seidler lets the story speak for itself rather than worrying about how to prompt a specific emotional reaction from the audience. While The King's Speech is part human interest story and part political drama, Seidler achieves an enviable balance between the two. We see King George VI (Nick Westrate) as a complete person.
By focusing on his relationship with the Aussie wannabe actor turned unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Michael Bakkensen), Seidler allows us to get to know multiple aspects of Bertie, as he is known to his family and - much to the chagrin of his supportive wife Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey) - Lionel. He is haunted by his unhappy and pressure-filled royal childhood, frustrated by his "flaws," and longs for interaction with the common man. He is fully aware of his place in the royal family, which sees multiple changes throughout the play - first with the death of his father King George V (John Judd) and then when his brother David, King Edward VIII (Jeff Parker), abdicates the throne on account of falling in love with Wallis Simpson (Tiffany Scott), an American girl with a not so perfect past. The pressure to fulfill all of his duties is immense, as it would be for anyone, but of particular concern is his ability to deliver speeches not only in front of the political and royal elite, but to the populace as a whole. After all, how can one lead and inspire a nation, if they can't get the words out?
With some help from Lionel, after being encouraged by his wife Elizabeth, Bertie - though reluctantly at first - discovers ways to push through adversity and do what is required of him. This includes delivering a live speech via radio broadcast to the populace to calm their fears as Hitler makes gains on Europe and the country finds itself in the throes of World War. In the end, Bertie and those around him realize he is more than up for the job, stuttering be damned.
To be clear, this is not a perfect play or production. There is an abundance of humor, including the self-deprecating variety on the part of Bertie (I can relate). It's a welcome addition to what could have been a plodding drama, but some of it borders on cartoonish. This problem is no more apparent than during the scenes with Cosmo Lang (Noble Shropshire), the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ah, well, what's one more evil villain? The inclusion of Winston Churchill (Kevin Gudahl) fares better even if the actor is not as convincing as he could have been.
As directed by Michael Wilson, there's an overreliance on projections (Hana S. Kim) that can be at times, visually overwhelming. At least at the National, the multi-functional set (Kevin Depiner) doesn't quite fit the stage making it easy - at least from my vantage point - to see into the wings.
Still, Wilson has assembled a tremendous cast to deliver a very appealing story.
Westrate, while lacking some of the innate vulnerability of Colin Firth, is nearly entirely believable as Bertie and particularly skillful at portraying a range of emotions. With some help from dialect coach Kate DeVore, he does a more than decent job with the task of stuttering. Not every block of repetition sounds the same as every other - something I have criticized in more than one production around town - and he makes it mostly physically clear that he is trying to get the words out even though it's far from easy. (Two second moments of "pretty" stuttering? Not a thing, at least not every time - and thankfully this production doesn't go there.) How I wish more productions would spring for a dialect coach with a clue about stuttering.
Westrate has an easy chemistry with Lacey as Elizabeth and Bakkensen as Lionel. Bertie's relationship with each is hugely important for the story to land right and all three actors excel. Bakkensen is appropriately self-assured as Lionel and Elizabeth Ledo makes a strong impression in the small role as Lionel's "salt of the earth" wife Myrtle.
At the end of the evening, sitting in The National Theatre, I was impressed with the care the cast and creative team took to present this story onstage. It's not your standard political drama, and it's not your standard inspirational porn about a person with a disability either. It's a compelling story about a complex man - complex like all of us. As a person who stutters, I may have identified with Bertie's struggles in a more personal way than many theatergoers and appreciated that his voice - his true voice - could be heard and not stifled. However, at the end of the day, don't we all just want to be heard and seen and valued for who we are?
Running time: Two hours and ten minutes, including one intermission.
THE KING'S SPEECH plays The National Theatre - 1321 Pennsylvania Ave, NW in Washington, DC - through February 16, 2020. Consult the National Theatre website to purchase tickets.
Artwork: Courtesy of National Theatre website