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The King's speech play: review

Rob Coe | 12.03.2015

Rob Coe gives his view of the new production and chats with Raymond Coulthard who plays the King.

Kings Speech playAs anyone who stammers can testify, speaking to a group of people can be a petrifying experience, but talking to a nation and a still vast Empire on live radio?

The future King George VI's entrance to Wembley Stadium, in the latest stage adaptation of The King's Speech, sends shivers down this stammerer's spine. The countdown to the prince's speech at the 1925 Empire Exhibition takes the look of the last few minutes of a condemned prisoner being led to gallows as a visibly unsettled prince approaches the microphone and the 'on-air' sign comes on.

What follows is an excruciating passage of mumbles and grunts and silences as the prince, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, looks to his wife who we can clearly see is desperately fearing for her dear Bertie.

The others in the Royal Box however are far less sympathetic to the prince's plight as their snide and impatient remarks clearly demonstrate.

Like Colin Firth's portrayal in the Oscar-winning film, Ray Coulthard plays the stammering king to perfection. The overt manifestations of his stammer are easy to recognise. The blocks and facial contortions together with the body twitches and lack of eye contact are proof Coulthard has researched his subject well.

After the show we sat down for a chat and Coulthard explained how he watched dozens of YouTube clips of the king. “You can see as the king struggles for speech he would look down and close his eyes, almost to make people believe he is looking at his notes and not stammering,” said the actor instantly recognisable from his roles in The English Patient and Mr. Selfridge.

“You can see his jaw lock in a wide-mouthed grimace, funnily enough very similar to what Prince Charles does now when he is searching for words.”

Coulthard went on to explain how the stammer created some unfortunate side-effects

Coulthard went on to explain how he imitated the stammer and how it created some unfortunate side-effects, something that would not be lost on any stammerer. “To copy the stammer I tried to create a war in my head,” he explained. “This part wants me to say the word, but the other part says 'no!'”

“However, I've had to start seeing a neck specialist and also an osteopath,” he admitted. “The way I jerk my head has caused a form of whiplash,” he explained, drawing an imaginary line from the back of his head to his shoulder.

Coulthard has been humbled by the response he has received since the play was launched recently in Chichester. “I met a chap who was recovering from a stroke and had developed these blocks when he was talking. He was crying when he was telling me how seeing the play has given him the inspiration to fight his own problems.”

In the world we live in, it's rare for disabilities to be given a national platform and even rarer for positive role models to appear and be heralded. Therefore this is a rare opportunity to give stammering a vehicle to raise awareness of a disability that effects some three-quarters of a million Britons and more significantly one-in-five young children in an era where forms of communication continue to diversify and increase in importance.

Dysfunctional childhood

Back to the play and we see how the covert side of the king's stammer were definitely influenced by his dysfunctional childhood. From the bullying of his father and the favouritism showed to the elder sibling and heir to the throne, who we also see mercilessly torment his brother; to being naturally left-handed and 'corrected', wearing leg braces as a knock-kneed child and also abused by a nanny for many years.

Desperately trying to help her husband, Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother, comes across Lionel Logue, a cocky Australian, played by the equally colourful Jason Donovan, who turned in a dynamic and pleasantly assured performance.

Logue, we are told, honed his skills as a speech therapist treating shell-shocked Anzacs returning from the massacre of Gallipoli.

With Logue not being well-versed in royal etiquette, moments of comedy come easily, but not thankfully at the expense of Bertie's stammer, something the play takes great credit for. At no time is the word 'cure' used and it's clear that the king would always be dysfluent which we can clearly hear and see even in the triumphant conclusion.

Even though some of Logue's techniques seem impractical to say the least and a lot are clearly artistic licence, he makes a ground-breaking discovery in establishing a link between the physiological and psychological symptoms of a stammer.

The king's temper is well-documented and we can also see the frustration, shame, self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy that stammers can induce. It was not hard to be touched, and recall similar personal experiences, when the king fell sobbing into his wife's arms at the news of his brother's abdication and the new expectations of him with all the implications on his still-severe stammer.

Of course the plot is played out to a constant backdrop of the build up to the declaration of war, something that the play focusses on more than the film. We also see the deliberations between the Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury as they debate the significance of the monarchy and the new media age, something Hitler and Mussolini were already using to great propaganda effect.

Bertie did not want to be King, but knew that when called it was his duty, in probably the most difficult period in his country's history, to deal with his demons and lead his country.

Few can argue with the words written by Churchill, a fellow stammerer we are told, on King George VI's funeral wreath: 'For valour'.

Rob Coe is the organiser of the Cambridge stammering self-help group.