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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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