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Roxana Silbert - The King's Speech

When Roxana Silbert decided to direct a new production of writer David Seidler's original stage version of The King's Speech, it was something of a calculated risk. Originally written in 2007 before being picked up by director Tom Hooper at the suggestion of his mother and turned into a hit film starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, Seidler's drama about the relationship between King George VI and the Australian speech therapist who cured the monarch's stammer led a short if distinguished life when it premiered on the West End in 2012.

Then, the play's original producers were happy to admit that their show had been staged too soon after the film, which was still prevalent in the minds of many audiences. Three years on, Silbert's new co-production between Birmingham Rep, the theatre she is artistic director of, and Chichester Festival Theatre, would appear to have acquired just enough distance from both as it arrives in Glasgow as part of its national tour next week. While having former Neighbours star Jason Donovan playing speech therapist Lionel Logue in one of his most serious stage roles to date won't harm the show's commercial cache, this wasn't what originally piqued Silbert's interest.

“It's a bromance between these two men from very different backgrounds, but who somehow feel they have this common ground,” she says. “In the King we see a man with real integrity, and who wants to become leader of his country and make a difference.”

Silbert notes a contemporary parallel in this respect.

“What was interesting about the Scottish referendum, and which was something that the English press never really got, is that it wasn't about an economic argument, but something that came from the heart, and we've lost that in English politics.”

Donovan's character too has a set of ambitions he can't quite master.

“Lionel Logue wasn't brought up in stuffy old England,” says Silbert, “and he really wants to be a great actor, but he isn't one, and there's something there that prevents him from being one, but which made him a great speaker, and in these two men coming together like this they both become successful. It's very moving, and when Jason was looking for a serious theatre project, this was the one he really wanted to do, and as Lionel Logue it brings together all of the charm, warmth and wit for the character which the Royal family aren't really renowned for.

“What happens between Logue and King George is something I think that David Seidler recognised as well. He's a stammerer himself, who's a very successful film and speech writer, and I got really interested in talking to him about doing the play again. The first production was acclaimed critically, but it was on in the West End when the film was still running in London, so it was hard for it to have any kind of momentum, even though audiences were very positive about it. Sometimes these things can work with you and sometimes against you.”

Silbert has blazed quite a trail over the last two decades since the early days of her directing career took her to West Yorkshire Playhouse. After two years as an associate director at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Silbert was appointed Literary Director at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where she stayed for three years until 2004. Following this, Silbert became artistic director of Paines Plough, and in 2009 became an associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company before beginning her current tenure in Birmingham in 2012.

It was while at the RSC that Silbert directed Dunsinane, David Greig's fantastical sequel to Shakespeare's Macbeth. In association with the National Theatre of Scotland, Dunsinane has gone on to tour the world, and at time of talking Silbert is preparing to visit the production during its Chicago leg.

As with Dunsinane, Silbert's position at Birmingham Rep has seen the theatre able to adopt an increasingly rare position in UK regional theatre, whereby the Rep's programme can straddle a commercial touring circuit beyond a show's initial run. Both The King's Speech and a current tour of Twelve Angry Men starring Tom Conti originated in Birmingham in a way which in part harks back to what is often thought of as a golden age of regional touring theatre in the 1970s.

“We have three spaces,” says Silbert, “the biggest of which is a 900 seater, which is the same size as the Olivier at the National. Last year the James Plays previewed here because it was the only place that could take something on that kind of scale. So our smaller spaces do a lot of work for young people and families, but our main space is epic, and we look for work that can fill that space.

“We also have great workshop facilities, which attracts producers, and I'm genuinely interested in collaboration. Also, Birmingham has a very diverse demography compared to somewhere like Chichester, but if we just put something like The King's Speech on in Birmingham for two and a half weeks and that was that, it would seem like a waste of our resources, whereas this has a life until June.

Given everything which The King's Speech has become by way of the film, how does Silbert, and indeed Seidler, transcend its iconic status?

“The thing to be quite clear about,” Silbert stresses, “is that it isn't an adaptation of the film. Sometimes people can't get the idea of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush playing these two men out of their heads, but at no point are we trying to recreate the film. This is a play made up of thirty-eight scenes in which Jason as Lionel and Raymond Coulthard as King George give their own unique and brilliant interpretations of these two men. The story is the same, but what we're doing is something a lot more theatrical, and with a totally different style.

“I love the film, and there's still a huge appetite for it, but it's much firmer as a play than you might think. It's a play that has magic. When these two men shake hands at the end, I still find myself getting teary.”

The King's Speech, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, March 16-21; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, May 18-23.
www.atgtickets.com
 
The Herald, March 10th 2015

ends

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