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The King's Speech on stage

Leys Geddes, Charles Edwards | 01.06.2012

After a theatre tour ending up in the West End, The King's Speech play closed in May 2012. After attending its gala premiere, BSA Chair Leys Geddes met up with Charles Edwards, who played King George VI, for a chat about taking on the role.

Charles Edwards, Jonathan Hyde and Emma FieldingWe interviewed 'somebody else' who played King George VI and he spent most of the time asking us questions about stammering. Do you have any questions?!

I can understand Colin Firth wanting to know whether he had got it right. On that first night in Guildford you were the first person I met after the performance and your reaction, immediately, was so important. Authenticity is the top priority. Also, at Guildford, we had a very good turnout from the BSA - there were some members there with a stand, and they wrote me a wonderful letter. It said everything that I wanted to hear. Those reviews are far more important to me than any others.

How did you get the role?

I had been in Much Ado About Nothing, where the character I was playing was very nervous and the stammer was a part of that characterisation, although I didn't purposefully do a full stammer. Also, when I was a child, and later, I was quite reticent, so it's something I've always brought into my acting - a reticence, a nervousness. The producers rang up and asked if I would like to do it, completely out of the blue - usually we have lots of auditions. I didn't really know the background back then, and I didn't know it had been a play. I wanted to make sure that it was worth doing, theatrically - so many shows in the West End are just spin-offs of quite recent movies, so when I discovered it was originally a play, that ticked a box. There's a lot in the script which is similar, and also a lot of stuff that's not in the movie. So I was very pleased to be asked, really chuffed.

I've tried stammering in real life. I was most conscious of a feeling of holding people up.

Tell us about the process of learning how to stammer.

My first port of call was obviously George VI himself. In rehearsal we saw an edited video of him speaking at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, and there are lots of cutaways to the audience. Then we saw an unedited version - the camera stays on him and you can see the bits they cut out, and he appears to be in complete blocks with very few repetitions. That was the starting point.

In film or television you can show a lot in close-up and you can be silent, as long as your eyes are telling the story, but on stage I think it needs more - probably things that George VI didn't actually do. But all those things like the leg movements and the clenching and banging of hands came quite naturally. The tension just fed through the body. So I was very pleased to hear people say that was authentic.

I was reading an interview on the BSA website with Neil Swain, the voice coach who helped Colin Firth, and he credited his great friend, speech therapist Annie Morrison, for all her help. So, I rang her up and she said she'd love to help me. I had two one-hour sessions with her, just talking about technicalities really, and physicality. She explained that stammering is innately personal; peculiar to the individual. But we discussed the kind of tensions and what happens in the mouth.

In rehearsal, I got help from the writer David Seidler and Ian McNeice (who played Churchill), who both stammer. It was then I realised that it is something which is not conquered, but can be managed. Although the play is two hours long, many years are condensed. So, in the final speech I felt that it was important that there was not suddenly a great out-flowing of fluent speech. The King had it for the rest of his life, of course.

Do you decide where you are going to stammer and then stick to that?

I have a sort of blueprint, in terms of where I stammer, but I do experiment. The other night I had a note from Adrian Noble, the director, suggesting some changes which might have made things more amusing. I disagreed because it would have changed the rhythm of the line. Broadly speaking, I stammer on K and P sounds because I had read that was what the King did. I'm not slavish to that though. And, built into the script, was David Seidler's dictum that I shouldn't stammer when I'm angry. There are long swathes of anger in this play but I didn't want to lose the stammer completely during those bits. And I think the more intimate the King and Logue (the King's therapist) become, the easier the conversation becomes. It's a fascinating relationship.

Has the role changed your perception of stammering?

I've become much more aware of speech in general and I notice a lot more stammering now, in particular the feeling of being trapped and being unable to escape from it. Although I'm wary of actors going out and trying things, I've tried stammering in real life. I felt it was important to do this. I was most conscious of a feeling of holding people up and I found myself pointing at things rather than asking for them.

Charles Edwards with scrapbookI guess I would still have wanted to be an actor even if I stammered for real. I did once work with an actor who stammered, and on stage he did get into blocks. He stammered more in everyday life than on stage, but when he did stammer he really hit the wall and just battled through it.

Do you think the film and the play help people to understand stammering better?

Yes, I think many people see the film or the play and become much more aware of stammering but, very possibly, not truly understanding it. There is this thing about the King 'overcoming' his stammer, which is used in publicity, not necessarily for this play but certainly for the film. For example, 'Can he overcome his stammer in time to make this great speech?' I think the public's view of stammering is that it can be cured. And that's incorrect. I'm sure that the film and the play have generated a lot more discussion about stammering, and that will have been very useful. But how can you help them understand that it's not like that? Well, other than getting prominent people who are prepared to talk about it, you need documentaries and television, I suppose, which create insights; or characters in soaps, maybe.

Have you heard any good stammering jokes?

No, I haven't heard any stammering jokes! For a start, I'm a hopeless joke-teller and 'rememberer'. But there must be some...

What did BSA members think?

John Russell: "Charles Edward's performance was full of power and raw emotion and enabled the audience to appreciate the frustration, desperation and helplessness Bertie must have felt about his predicament. He facilitated the transition from nervous and terrified King-in-waiting, to a confident, assertive individual, brilliantly. I found it riveting!"

Brittany Rex: "The King's Speech was a brilliant play and there were amazing performances all round. As an actor who stammers, the stage version has had a bigger impact on me personally. Seeing it in a play format, and seeing how the audience responded to it has given me the renewed confidence to take up acting again."

From the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 6 and 7