“The King’s Speech” didn’t make it to the stage until 2012, when a brief London run, directed by Adrian Noble, came on the heels of the movie’s success. Today’s audiences may be less fixated on the big-screen performances of Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, but it’s still difficult to disregard those actors when viewing the touring production directed by Michael Wilson, especially with the knowledge that a sharper, smarter version of this historical drama is only a streaming service away.
That said, the portrayals here do stand fine on their own, for the most part, even if some of these American actors’ accents are more convincing than others. Nick Westrate steps into Firth’s shoes as Bertie, the stuttering royal unexpectedly thrust onto the British throne on the eve of World War II. He imbues the reluctant king with bitterness, anger, wit and dread, peeling back Bertie’s layers before delivering the play’s titular address with trembling gravitas.
Michael Bakkensen charms as Lionel Logue, the eccentric Australian speech therapist recruited by Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth (Maggie Lacey), to help her husband overcome his fear of public speaking. Elizabeth Ledo makes the most of limited time onstage as Lionel’s exasperated wife, Myrtle, and Kevin Gudahl effectively evokes Winston Churchill.
Rather than embrace a stripped-down aesthetic, which could have distinguished the play from the film, Wilson strives for an overly cinematic vision. Although Kevin Depinet delivers a striking hallway set, whose forced perspective lends a sense of scale, that design merely functions as a backdrop for Hana S. Kim’s bombastic projections. By plastering the walls with imagery as grandiose as Westminster Abbey and as mundane as fading green wallpaper, these projections spoon-feed scene setting that should be left to the set design and audiences’ imaginations.
That heavy-handed sensibility also influences the comic relief, which is reduced to easy laughs and borderline fourth-wall-breaking quips. Rather than trust the central conflict of Bertie and Lionel’s earnest but tenuous bond, this production wedges Cosmo Lang (Noble Shropshire), the Archbishop of Canterbury, between them as a cartoonish second-act villain. The play’s climax then further loses itself in a haze of historical exposition.
There is something to be said for the uncanny timing of this production, and its skewering of regal decorum, in the wake of the decision by Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, to step back from the royal family. (Bertie’s brother David even abdicates the throne because of his love for an American woman.) Yet, the staging remains stale. It’s too bad this iteration of “The King’s Speech” doesn’t have anything new to say.
Correction: An earlier photo caption incorrectly identified the characters pictured as the main royal couple, Elizabeth and Bertie. The characters are Wallis Simpson and David, the former king.
The King’s Speech, by David Seidler. Directed by Michael Wilson. Costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound design and original music, John Gromada. With Jeff Parker, John Judd, David Lively and Tiffany Scott. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $54-$114. Through Sunday at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 800-514-3849. thenationaldc.com.