The juxtaposition between middle-class Australian and aristocratic royal is the heart of the drama, says Jason Donovan.
Jason plays Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue to Raymond Coulthard’s King George VI as The King’s Speech heads for Chichester Festival Theatre from February 5-14.
It’s 1936: King Edward VIII has abdicated for the love of Wallis Simpson. Bertie, his brother, is crowned King George VI of England. At an office in Harley Street, London, Bertie and his wife Elizabeth are meeting maverick Australian speech therapist and failed actor, Lionel Logue. Together they embark on an extraordinary journey.
“There is the fear and the jeopardy,” Jason says. “Lionel Logue is someone who befriends him rather than being a doctor or a therapist. He was someone who broke the rules. The rules were archaic, and the word therapy was never really used. Something like stuttering is not so much a physical problem as a mental problem. You’ve got to try to get to the root of it.”
The result is a remarkable story, but as Jason says, before the celebrated, Oscar-winning film of the tale, no-one had really ever heard of Logue: “I think he spent a lot of his later years in this country. His wife travelled back at one point to Australia, but Aussies like an overseas success!
“I saw the film, and I loved it, but I haven’t used the film as any sort of research whatsoever. In fact, I did This Morning on ITV, and they showed some clips of the film, but I didn’t really want to think about that.”
Throughout his career – Neighbours excluded – Jason has probably been more associated with the big musicals roles rather than the kind of straight part he’s playing now.
“But really I fell into the musicals by default. I love music and I love acting, but my pedigree is really as an actor. That’s where I came from. Neighbours was not the first acting role I did. I did quite a lot of TV in Australia before Neighbours came along.”
He did so without having gone to drama school: “That’s the difference with this business. You could do a four-year apprenticeship as a carpenter, and you will end up working as a carpenter. But you could spend years in drama school and then not got the part just because someone else is taller than you.”
Jason admits there was certainly a point where he considered going back to school: “But it really didn’t seem that I would get anything much that I didn’t already have.”
England has proved land of opportunity enough. In fact, there was a point recently where Jason realised he’s now lived longer in England than he ever did in Australia.
“I have been very lucky here. The people have been extremely lovely to me here. I will always call Australia home, to quote the Peter Allen song, but really home is where your heart is. My friends and family are here. Wherever they are is home.”
But those Aussie roots remain strong. Where you grew up will always be important. And maybe that’s part of the interest of The King’s Speech.
“I am very proud of my roots. And maybe if Lionel Logue had been an English doctor, the relationship with the King might have been very different, the fact that they didn’t really know how to fit Lionel Logue in, the fact that he was able to be a bit more daring.”