The rise of Albert, Duke of York, from stammering puddle of self-doubt to global champion in the fight against Nazis is a story with all the right stuff. There’s a scandalous royal romance, a world on the precipice of disaster, and in “Bertie,” an underdog who’s easy enough to root for. In director Michael Wilson’s staging of David Seidler’s drama for Chicago Shakespeare Theater there are also Downton Abbey-worthy period costumes by David C. Woolard and a cast led by Harry Hadden-Paton (Downton‘s Seventh Marquess of Hexham, aka Lady Edith’s husband). Opening the play the same weekend as the Downton movie was a savvy move: Hadden-Paton comes with a built-in publicity bonanza.
But the production is more a series of eye-catching historical tableaux than a living, breathing drama. Seidler’s dialogue is occasionally clever, particularly when speech therapist Lionel Logue (James Frain) is at his most insouciant. But pretty pictures can’t carry a drama. And that’s what The King’s Speech offers: artfully blocked actors looking fabulous. If you’re seeking illustrations for a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon-centric history text, look no further.
Seidler wrote the play before he wrote the screenplay of the Oscar-winning 2010 movie of the same name. Unlike the movie, the action here is restricted to interiors. The primary signifier of a change in locale in Kevin Depinet’s massively walled set is indicated by lighting fixtures that go up and down as the action moves about—it feels like they’re getting more of a workout than the cast. Projection designer Hana Kim does most of the heavy lifting; Depinet’s walls serve as screens that morph into variously sumptuous wall coverings and teeming masses of Brits.
The first act hangs on the crisis that arises when Bertie’s elder brother, David (Jeff Parker), insists on marrying Wallis Simpson (Tiffany Scott), presenting the unthinkable possibility of an American divorcee becoming Queen of England. That’s settled offstage, during intermission. David abdicates in the second act, having had a complete change of heart while the audience was in the loo.
Hadden-Paton makes Albert easy to sympathize with—as much as he can. Albert’s insecurities aren’t uncommon, but like most problems, they’re far easier to deal with if one doesn’t also have to worry about things like money or housing and has hundreds of staff on call to do one’s bidding 24/7. And despite the looming menace of a global war, The King’s Speech is strikingly insular. There isn’t a person of color to be found in this version of England, only a brief mention of colonial Africa and New Zealand.
Anglophiles are apt to love the production, especially those starving for the next season of The Crown. Chicago theaterphiles should know this: John Judd is killed off early and relegated to an offstage speaking role thereafter. That’s enough to make you want to petition the king, or better yet, the casting director. v