Broadway Vet Charles Edwards on Following Colin Firth in the West End Premiere of The King’s SpeechMarch 26th, 2012
It’s not easy following in the steps of an Oscar winner like Colin Firth, but the gifted Charles Edwards, who will take the stage beginning March 22 as stuttering monarch George VI in West End premiere of The King’s Speech, has faced comparable challenges before. Last summer, he was the best Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (opposite Eve Best) that London has seen in an age, and his performance as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps won acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Edwards recently chatted with Broadway.com about assuming the royal mantle in David Seidler’s Oscar-winning story, which had originally been written as a play.
Was the chance to star in The King’s Speech a no-brainer for you? They rang me up and asked me to do it, and I hadn’t actually seen the film—not through avoiding it but just that I’m quite lazy about going to the movies. I thought, “OK, obviously I’ll read the play,” and then I thought, “Shall I look at the film?” And I saw no reason not. It’s a beautiful piece of work, but I saw that there were substantial variations within the script of the play so that there was an actual theatrical reason for doing it; otherwise, it would seem quite cynical.
There will be those who wonder why they’re bothering: The film, after all, was released not that long ago! Yes except that I think there actually is more meat in our version of the story. What’s been fascinating is having David Seidler in rehearsal and finding out about the stuff he originally put in his play that was not included in the movie. Our play isn’t solely about the relationship between Bertie [George VI] and Lionel Logue [the Australian speech therapist, played by Geoffrey Rush on screen and Jonathan Hyde on stage]. There’s more political content, for example, and much more of a sense of the machinations behind the throne. There’s more going on in the play; there seems to be more at stake.
And the play is live, which has its own impact. Absolutely. The other thing about “why bother” is that I think there is something about being in the room with someone who can’t speak rather than watching it dispassionately on the screen, especially since the theater is a place where speech is paramount, so to see someone on stage who can’t do it is quite unsettling.
How did you prepare for that aspect of the role? I met with a wonderful woman called Annie Morrison who’s a speech and vocal coach at the Central School, and she has been a therapist for stammerers. I did a couple of sessions with her about, broadly speaking, what the technicalities of stammering do to you and to the body. And of course there are many examples on YouTube of George VI speaking in public, so you take that and mix it in and come up with something that, hopefully, honors who and what Bertie was while at the same time making it dramatically fluent.
Have you ever been to Buckingham Palace? No, never, though I think I did have an invitation once to their annual garden party [laughs]. But I have played other royals! I was a fictional king in Shaw’s The Apple Cart for Peter Hall and was David, George VI’s brother, in a play for television [Bertie and Elizabeth] some years ago with Alan Bates as George V and Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary. It had a wonderful cast, but I wasn’t very good in it; my performance was quite one-dimensional.
I doubt that. Have you been aware of critics who reviewed The King’s Speech during its pre-London tour and commented that this is your “star-is-born” moment? I have read them and that’s been very nice and pleasing but I tend to be wary of all such statements because you do something and you think, “This will lead on to something else,” but often it doesn’t and things go quiet [laughs]. So I can’t really think about that. The best thing is that people enjoy what you are doing.
You had a version of that when you opened on Broadway in The 39 Steps in 2008. That was great; I loved it. By that stage, I had done the play for over a year in London and the big excitement was to open it on Broadway, first at the American Airlines Theatre. We then transferred to the Cort and got to open it again. Those nights were thrilling: the reaction and also the classic first-night parties where somebody brings out Ben Brantley’s [New York Times] review. It was very, very exciting, especially because there was something so village hall-like, so British seaside humor, about the play, in something of the way there is about One Man, Two Guvnors, which is going to New York this season. Our show had such a British feel to it, so it was wonderful that the Americans really got it. This talk about irony not crossing the Atlantic is often nonsense.
But you didn’t want to stay in New York once your run was over, or go to L.A. and try your luck there? I had people saying that, but I didn’t fancy it. The truth is, I was very happy to come back and I was also very happy to hand the part over to Sam Robards, who was wonderful. By that point, I was ready to come home and try something else.
You do seem to get cast in roles that put your Englishness to good use, like Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the National’s recent Twelfth Night. I know what you mean. Even at drama school [London’s Guildhall], those were the roles I tended to get, like the boring Duke in As You Like It or anything by Noel Coward [laughs].
What about musicals? I can sing and have, though I’m certainly not of West End musical caliber. But I was in our graduation musical at Guildhall, which was Do I Hear a Waltz? And we did Pippin: I was the bloody King, of course [laughs].
Could The King’s Speech be a musical—the My Fair Lady of our time? That might be quite a long evening, but we’ve already decided it’s going to be called The King Sings.
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