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‘The King’s Speech’ a royal letdown in stage adaptation

Diehard fans of royal pomp and circumstance may find some pleasure here. But I suspect they already have the superior version of this story on their DVD shelves at home.

Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton, right) expresses his gratitude for speech therapist Lionel Logue (James Frain), as Myrtle Logue (Elizabeth Ledo) proudly looks on in “The King’s Speech.”
Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton, right) expresses his gratitude for speech therapist Lionel Logue (James Frain), as Myrtle Logue (Elizabeth Ledo) proudly looks on in Chicago Shakespeare’s North American premiere production of “The King’s Speech.”
Liz Lauren

Perhaps the biggest obstacle faced by “The King’s Speech” is a mildly paradoxical one: If you’re the kind of person who will want to see “The King’s Speech,” you will already have seen “The King’s Speech.”

The play by that title, which had its North American premiere Friday night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, tells the same story as the 2010 film of the same name. Spanning a period of British history from the mid-1920s up to Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany in 1939, we see Prince Albert, the Duke of York and future King George VI — “Bertie” to his family — working to overcome a pronounced stammer that impedes his public speaking. At the urging of his wife, Elizabeth, Bertie goes to see an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue. The two men become unlikely friends.

The movie, which might as well have been grown in a laboratory devoted to engineering awards-season bait, did the trick. It won four Oscars at the 2011 ceremony, including best picture, best actor for Colin Firth, best direction for Tom Hooper, and best original screenplay for David Seidler. And it grossed nearly $140 million at the box office in the United States alone — no small feat for a British period drama made on a budget of just $15 million.

So one imagines that its potential audience of Anglophiles and royalists here in the American Midwest not only saw “The King’s Speech” on screen, but it’s still fresh in their minds. Which raises the question: What added value will they get from seeing the stage version? The answer is not much.

I should note here that there’s some confusion in the press — indeed, even in the marketing — about the chicken-and-egg problem of which came first, the play or the movie. Both were written by Seidler, for whom it seems to be a passion project. Seidler had his own stuttering problem as a child, and saw George VI as a role model.

While some reports have suggested that the film was adapted from the play that’s now on stage, Seidler himself — whose career has primarily been in screenwriting — wrote in a 2012 essay for the UK newspaper the Independent that he’d initially written the story as a screenplay when his wife suggested trying it as a play. The stage script then attracted the attention that brought the film to life, but the play had never been produced before the film was made.

Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton, right) prepares to address the nation, as his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Night) stands by reassuringly in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of “The King’s Speech,” directed by Michael Wilson.
Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) prepares to address the nation, as his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Night) stands by reassuringly in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of “The King’s Speech,” directed by Michael Wilson.
Liz Lauren

All of this backstory aside: The play is a plodding, sodding bore as compared to the film, which at least had the off-kilter chemistry between Firth’s Bertie and Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel to recommend it, along with Hooper’s surfeit of odd camera angles.

Michael Wilson, who directs here, can’t rely on cinematographic framing. His staging is instead set against a skewed-perspective set of walls by designer Kevin Depinet, which serve as backdrops for Hana Kim’s oddly cartoonish projections.

The king is played by British actor Harry Hadden-Paton (who also reprises his role as another Bertie in the new “Downton Abbey” movie, speaking of celebrations of British aristocracy). Without the benefit of Hooper’s extreme close-ups, Hadden-Paton physicalizes Bertie’s blockage into something convulsive.

He doesn’t manage much connection with James Frain’s suave Logue, who comes across as far too debonair for a man Seidler wants us to see as an outsider.

Logue’s wife, Myrtle, played here by Elizabeth Ledo, gets quite a bit more to do than she does in the movie; here she clashes with her husband over her wish to return to Australia, though she’s still saddled with ridiculous supportive-spouse lines: “Lionel, you’re a man with big dreams!”

But if Myrtle gets more to do, Bertie’s wife Elizabeth is diminished in comparison to the film — or maybe it’s just that English actor Rebecca Night reads rather flat next to Helena Bonham Carter’s sparkier turn.

Ultimately, though, there’s not a lot of substance underneath the stiff upper lips and handsome costumes. Seidler places more emphasis here than in the film on the political machinations by the likes of Winston Churchill (Kevin Gudahl) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Alan Mandell) to oust Bertie’s scandal-prone brother David (Jeff Parker), but it’s not as if we don’t know how that will resolve.

Indeed, there’s a distinct lack of conflict throughout the piece. Bertie shows mild resistance to seeking treatment. Elizabeth displays mild disapproval of Lionel’s methods. Act I ends on a mild spat between Lionel and the king. It’s all so politely mild.

And the live staging, heavy on furniture-moving scene changes, puts a lot of dead air between Seidler’s endlessly expository exchanges. Diehard fans of royal pomp and circumstance may find some pleasure here. But I suspect they already have the superior version of this story on their DVD shelves at home.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.