As the play of The King’s Speech hits the West End, meet the man who can out-stutter Colin FirthMarch 16th, 2012
Only a brave man would take on a stage version of The King’s Speech while the triumph of the Oscar-winning film and its star – middle England’s favourite heartthrob Colin Firth – still burns bright in the minds of the British public.
And it’s an even braver actor or actress who would dare to step into the shoes of Firth as the stuttering microphone-shy George VI, Helena Bonham Carter as (Queen) Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush as audacious Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue.
I sit with director Adrian Noble, former artistic supremo of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Charles Edwards, the actor who plays George VI, Australian thespian Jonathan Hyde (Logue), and Cranford star Emma Fielding, in Bonham Carter’s role, in a room at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.
Tough but twinkly: Emma Fielding and Charles Edwards in the stage production of The King’s Speech
What insane impulse possessed Noble to do this?. ‘Well, it was a play in the first place,’ he replies defensively.
Author David Seidler, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, wrote The King’s Speech for the stage but a small film company bought it in 2010.
So Seidler, who longed to see it in the theatre, approached Noble to do a stage version. Noble’s face creases with mischief: ‘I didn’t even know there was a film. When I heard about it, I assumed it was going to be a tiny thing, a nothing. Then it became an Oscar-winning smash hit. But I wasn’t daunted.
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‘So much was taken out for the film that we have now put back in, namely most of the politics, the darkness, and a crucial intimacy.’
I gasp when Noble says he hasn’t seen the film properly. ‘I caught some of it on a plane,’ he admits.
To my further astonishment, Charles Edwards and Emma Fielding haven’t seen any of it.
‘I was too lazy to see it,’ says Edwards, whose head is buried in his jumper. ‘I don’t feel any pressure with regard to Colin Firth.
‘OK, he won an Oscar, but I wasn’t alarmed.’ He looks up and I see why. While Firth was Colin Firth playing a future King with a stutter, in a performance some critics found a little stolid, Edwards is Bertie (as the King’s family and friends called him).
He has the same hair, the colour of a winter sunset, the same thoughtful slate eyes, fine features, and, beneath the calm facade, vulnerability. He is a swan of a man, with that slight androgynous allure that crosses all frontiers — Errol Flynn had it, so did Montgomery Clift and James Dean.
Edwards, who appears younger than his 41 years, grins boyishly and tells me: ‘I really do identify with Bertie. During my childhood I was painfully shy and got hurt at school by comments. I do understand a man’s attempt to find himself and become strong. Bertie is in some ways a bleak figure at the beginning. It’s a life and death struggle for him.’
In the play, the relationship between the King and his wily Antipodean voice coach is more intense. In one magical instance, the King and Logue waltz together to Scotland The Brave. Later, Bertie sings The Swanee River to relax his vocal cords.
Award-winning performance: Coling Firth as King George VI in the film version
‘It’s tender and sweet,’ says Emma Fielding, smiling benignly.
She captures Queen Elizabeth’s demeanour of barely repressed humour combined with hauteur.
‘My Elizabeth is twinkly, but really tough. She is fiercely protective of Bertie and the throne.’
Jonathan Hyde, who has seen the film, comes from Brisbane, as did Logue himself.
A member of the RSC, he has dark, mesmeric eyes like Rasputin. Elegant and lithe, he is a creature of exotica compared with Geoffrey Rush, who was more of a sheep dog harrying a reluctant ewe.
‘I guess I play him as even more of an outsider,’ Hyde nods. ‘Logue is a strange man, a bit of a showman who wanted to be an actor. He came from the edge of the empire to its heart.’ Scenes between the men are also more satisfyingly aggressive; there is the sense of a real skirmish of wills. ‘My Logue enjoys confrontations. He knows all the emotional tricks.’
In a scene which will leave audiences stunned, Logue loses patience with Bertie — and is accused of attempting to persuade his pupil to encourage Edward VIII to abdicate, with Bertie shouting: ‘That’s treason!’
What elevates the play above the film is the feeling of being in a room with characters who changed history. You root for George VI all the way.
Winston Churchill, peripheral in the movie, becomes a central figure.
Noble says: ‘He began as an important opponent of abdication, then changed his mind as he realised it would be best for the country. The film doesn’t show this vital transition.’
Edward VIII’s fascist sympathies run through it ‘He is shown to be very friendly with Oswald Mosley and Hitler and acts as if Bertie is fighting him for power,’ adds Noble. Indeed, The King’s Speech as a play is a struggle between good and evil.
I suspect audiences will be moved most by the final scene, which in the film had a Cecil B de Mille grandiosity: impressive but oddly stilted.
The play sets the final scene in a makeshift recording studio at the Palace. As the King speaks, his Queen and their loyal staff stand motionless behind a screen. There is choking emotion in the theatre as the curtain falls.
David Seidler said seeing it as a play was better than winning an Oscar. ‘This is what I wanted,’ he said. As for Edwards, I predict not only stardom, but national heartthrob-dom. Colin Firth? Who?
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