Theater Review: THE KING’S SPEECH (The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 21, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


We love levelling. Mark Twain’s prince and the pauper, Queen Victoria and her Scottish and Indian boyfriends, Queen Anne and her favorites, a British schoolteacher and the King of Siam, King George III and his equally mad doctors — these equalizing polarities keep history real.

Add to these opposites that attract another case of strange bedfellows — the improbable “talking cure” between the unprepared and unexpected King George VI, a younger son who never should have reached the throne, and Lionel Logue, an unlicensed speech therapist and frustrated Shakespearean actor from Australia. As the Yanks like to say, “Who’da thunk it?”.

Bertie, Duke of York, second son of George V, Duke of York, and brother of David, Prince of Wales (and later, briefly, Edward VIII), is very afraid of public speaking: Outside the comfort of a palace, he’s possessed by painful pauses and uncontrollable stammering. With radio suddenly transporting the reigning Windsors into pubs and parlors, it was imperative that the voice of the monarch command respect, not ridicule.

After all, as Bertie astutely notes, “it’s not a family but a firm.” Enter Lionel, secretly.

The previously untold story of Bertie’s troubled ascension to the throne, a victory of imagination over insecurity, enthralled audiences of the Academy Award-winning 2010 film starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Rewritten by screenwriter David Seidler (an author with his own vocal challenges) as a 2012 drama, The King’s Speech is now a splendid North American premiere (and future tour) by Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Buckingham Palace has been temporarily moved to Chicago’s Navy Pier

Gorgeously displayed in CST’s massive Yard, with period-perfect costumes by David C. Woolard and invaluable projections by Hana Kim, Michael Wilson’s sumptuous staging richly connects royalty and reality and psychology and history. Kevin Depinet’s portrait gallery of British kings opens up to, as a Buckingham Palace official warned the press never to do, “shine daylight upon magic.”

Seidler begins with the incontestable truth that, unlike so many aspirers across the centuries, Bertie (Downton Abbey’s Harry Hadden-Paton) did not seek the throne. It found him — after Bertie’s playboy brother David (Jeff Parker) is forced to abdicate. Engineered by prime minister Stanley Baldwin (David Lively), the dethronement was forced as much by David’s quasi-traitorous Nazi sympathies as for his passion for a colonial commoner, Wallace Simpson (Tiffany Scott), a twice-divorced American socialite/expatriate.

Unready for prime time and wearing a very shaky crown, Bertie needs to literally find his voice. He turns for covert help to Lionel Logue (James Frain of True Blood and The Tudors). This Aussie version of Henry Higgins is charged with transforming not a flower girl into a duchess but a shamed pretender into a bona fide king worthy of an empire as much as of his stalwart consort Elizabeth (Rebecca Night).

Forthright and uncowed by his king, Lionel refuses to coddle privilege. Buttressed by his salt-of-the-earth helpmate Myrtle (Elizabeth Ledo), who just wants them to return to Perth, Lionel embarks on a Pygmalion-like treatment of speaking as singing and relaxation techniques for stage fright.

Given Bertie’s bouts of snobbery (more his protection of privacy than an assertion of class privilege) and Lionel’s brash tough love, the course of coaching doesn’t always run true. Besides personality clashes greater than any class conflict, Bertie contends with mockery from his bratty brother, now the newly-minted Duke of Windsor, as well as Cosmo Lang (Alan Mandell), a busy-body Archbishop of Canterbury with a suffocating sense of protocol. Then there’s a wily MP named Winston Churchill (Kevin Gudahl), prepping himself for a pivotal role in a much bigger conflict.

The King’s Speech goes way beyond its title to depict the humanity behind so many titles. There are larger stakes at play here than elocution lessons — no less than the need to transform loyalty to the throne into a defense of the realm for the upcoming battles of Britain. No question, the feckless and fascist Edward VIII would have undermined, if not endangered, the fight against his pal Adolf Hitler. Good riddance.

Theater doesn’t wax more delicious to eye and ear than the 140 minutes of this sprawling and sensitive slice of history. The King’s Speech levels with love.

photos by Liz Lauren

The King’s Speech
North American premiere
The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare
800 E. Grand Avenue on Navy Pier
ends on to October 20, 2019
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes

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