The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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