‘King’s Speech’ makes DC premiere at National Theatre decade after film debut

A scene from the stage version of “The King’s Speech.” (Liz Lauren)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The King's Speech' at National Theatre

It’s hard to believe it has been 10 years since “The King’s Speech” hit movie theaters.

The biopic won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Colin Firth.

Now, the stage version of David Seidler’s “The King’s Speech” makes its D.C. premiere at National Theatre this week only.

“Believe it or not, I used to work for Miramax Films as a script reader,” actor Michael Bakkensen told WTOP. “I wrote coverage for them as a side job. … So, I first read it in 2007. … I thought it was a wonderful idea, so it definitely got a ‘consider’ from me!”

The story follows King George VI, nicknamed Bertie, who inherits the British throne abdicated by his older brother, Edward.

Bertie is not only shy, but he also struggles with a stammer, which makes it difficult to address the nation on the brink of World War II.

As such, Bertie’s encouraging wife, Elizabeth, convinces him to train with an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue.

Together, they form an unexpected friendship to prepare his pivotal radio broadcast for Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939.

“You have someone who was second in line to be king and always hoped he won’t have to be king because he has such a debilitating stammer in public,” Bakkensen said. “He had this speech to give at Wembley Stadium in the ’20s that was so halting that it was, I think to him, a terrible embarrassment. It was difficult for him to imagine taking on kingly duties.”

Suddenly, he’s thrust into the spotlight after his older brother’s scandal.

“His brother David, who became King Edward, had an affair with an American heiress and divorcee named Wallis Simpson and, quite shockingly on the eve of World War II, abdicated the throne, putting [Bertie] in line to be the next king at a time of total crisis in Europe,” Bakkensen said. “He was going to need to find his voice right away.”

The stage production stays true to the real-life events, although Bertie and Logue actually worked together about 10 years longer than what you see in the film and in the play.

The two remained lifelong friends from the 1920s until Bertie’s death in 1952.

“Logue really recognizes that this was so debilitating to him that it kept Bertie from developing deep friendships with other classmates and friends growing up,” Bakkensen said. “He had a very close relationship with his wife — that’s who he could trust — but he didn’t have friends, so he formed a deep bond pretty early on with his therapist Logue.”

Bakkensen pulled from his own experience studying speech in his theater training.

“By happenstance, I trained at both Yale and the University of California, San Diego in voice for the stage,” Bakkensen said. “That is three or four generations after Logue, who in a way invented it — this idea of working with people who are traumatized or have significant issues in speaking — that ended up becoming part of actor training.”

As for Logue, he embraced speech therapy by helping Australian World War I vets.

“These guys had been in the trenches, you’d hear about shell shock for months on end, and many came back unable to speak,” Bakkensen said. “As an a young Australian elocution specialist … he was the sought-out person to try to deal with these issues. Not just having them do tongue twisters and muscle work, but doing therapy where they’re engaging with their anger and what’s keeping them from speaking and letting that out.”

What is the acting challenge for Bakkensen to play the therapist?

“Where can I get him to not stammer? Where is he able to flow with his speech?” Bakkensen said.

“It happens when he gets angry, it happens when he sings, it happens when he moves. So I get him to do things when he’s working on other activities. I get him to build models with me, I get him to sing what he wants to say, I get him to swear, get angry and get the juices flowing that way.”

Juilliard-trained actor Nick Westrate masters the stammer as Bertie.

“It’s just getting very specific for him about what words or what emotional things trip him up, so it’s not a wash of stammering constantly; it’s very specific things that create issues for him,” Bakkensen said. “He’s just a brilliant actor, so he’s been trying different stuff, but it’s very convincing and makes you feel for him and be happy for him if he succeeds.”

Maggie Lacey plays Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, Duchess of York.

“She’s really great,” Bakkensen said. “She’s deeply in love with him. Her character says, ‘I fell in love with you because of the stammer. I didn’t want to be in this gilded cage. I wanted to have more of a life than just being the queen.’ Of course, it turns out she’s going to end up being the queen anyway, but I think she liked him because he was vulnerable and compassionate and he wasn’t the dashing matinee idol that his brother was.”

Speaking of dashing, the period costumes and set fully capture the 1930s, all directed by Michael Wilson of Broadway’s “The Trip to Bountiful” and “The Best Man.”

“There’s going to be period suits that make sense, there’s also the costume that the king wears for the coronation, the women will have beautiful dresses,” Bakkensen said. “They’ll be using digital projections of the setting. … You’ll see the interior of Westminster Abbey, you’ll see parts of England and London that frame the parts of the story that you’re in.”

Beyond the visuals, it’s the underdog story that continues to inspire, following a character who overcomes personal obstacles — and just happens to save the world in the process.

“It’s not Hitler so much, it’s his own trauma, the trauma of his childhood that he was teased,” Bakkensen said. “That story is the hero’s journey. There are people that are called upon at certain times to go above and beyond what they’re comfortable with or what they’re even capable of. … Sometimes that’s exactly who you want in a time like that.”

Bertie’s courage inspired an entire nation to help the Allies with World War II.

“It’s not him standing up there like ‘Braveheart,’ it’s coming out of what he can do, which is from a real emotional reserve, putting that out there, projecting the confidence that he’s developed,” Bakkensen said. “Somebody who was terrified to speak … is able to triumph; it gives Britons facing down the Nazi juggernaut courage that they can stand up to that.”

As for today’s audiences, it continues to inspire no matter what decade we’re in.

“If you have the courage to acknowledge what you need to work on, then you have the strength and perseverance to keep pushing, even though it’s painful, even though it makes you feel insecure, if you keep going, you can succeed. I hope people are inspired by that.”

Hear my full conversation with Michael Bakkensen below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Michael Bakkensen (Full Interview)

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