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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Madness of George III
National Theatre At Home, Nottingham Playhouse and YouTube   Summer 2020

The National Theatre's NT At Home offers this 2018 Nottingham Playhouse revival of Alan Bennett's 1991 play, in a strong production with a deeply affecting performance at its centre.

Bennett's play, a mix of drama and black comedy, depicts one of the periods in which George III appeared to go mad. (Modern medical detectives are inclined to suspect the genetic blood disease porphyria, about which more later.)

We are introduced to the King as a man of mild and often attractive eccentricities (He and his queen address each other as Mr and Mrs King), who rather rapidly descends into mental confusion and physical agonies.

Playwright Bennett presents the King's various doctors as fools and rogues, each with his own one-size-fits-all hobbyhorse, so they do the King no good whatever while subjecting him to purgatives, emetics, cupping and other 'treatments' that amount to cruel tortures.

Even the one doctor who ultimately seems to help him, through a course of psychological discipline, is shown by Bennett to be just the one who happened to be around while the disease waned on its own.

Compounding both drama and black comedy is the political setting, with Tory Prime Minister Pitt, a supporter of the king, struggling against Fox's Whigs for control of Parliament, while the dissolute Prince of Wales waits impatiently to be declared Regent.

A real accomplishment of Bennett's play is keeping the political context clear and convincing us it matters while never losing sight of the innocent good man in agony at its centre.

Director Adam Penford juggles the different levels very effectively, and Mark Gatiss as the King immediately grasps and never loses hold of our attention and sympathy.

If Gatiss does not displace memories of Nigel Hawthorne in the original National Theatre production or the 1994 film, he stands strongly beside it.

Where Hawthorne drew sympathy for the King by stressing the courage with which he fought his losing battle against the disease, Gatiss takes as his keynote the King's early speech 'I am not going out of my mind. My mind is going out of me' and brings us deep into the man's pain, both physical and mental, as his body and mind seem to turn against him and those around him only add to the torture.

A note on the text: the original National Theatre production included a brief scene in which two modern doctors commented on the case, noting that all the King's symptoms can be explained by the then-unidentified blood disease porphyria. That scene was cut when the play re-entered the NT repertory a year later, and remains omitted here.

That's worth mentioning because Mark Gatiss's performance makes it clear and all the more horrible because it is not explained away that something other than a simple mental breakdown is happening.

Elsewhere in the cast, Nicholas Bishop makes an attractive and sympathetic Pitt though Wilf Scolding is not quite despicable enough as the Prince. Several male roles, including the comic doctors, are played by female actors, a fact worth mentioning only because it does not affect the play in any way.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Madness of George III 2020