THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III
National Theatre at Home, Global
12/06/2020 - 18/06/2020
It’s 1788 and King George III is the most powerful man in the world. But his behaviour is becoming increasingly erratic as he succumbs to fits of lunacy.
With the King’s mind unravelling at a dramatic pace, ambitious politicians and the scheming Prince of Wales are joining forces to undermine the power of the Crown and expose the fine line between a King and a man.
Olivier Award-winners Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, The League of Gentlemen) and Adrian Scarborough (Gavin and Stacey) feature in Alan Bennett’s (The History Boys, The Lady in the Van) multi award-winning drama.
The Madness of George III was filmed live at Nottingham Playhouse and is available to watch from:
(UK time) Thursday 11 June 7pm
(NZ time) Friday 12 June, 6am
on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel, then on demand for one week only.
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George III: Mark Gatiss
Dr Willis Adrian: Scarborough
Queen Charlotte: Debra Gillett
Fitzroy: Nadia Albina
William Pitt: Nicholas Bishop
Fox/Dr Pepys: Amanda Hadingue
Greville: Jack Holden
Thurlow: David Hounslow
Dr Baker/Sheridan: Stephanie Jacob
Dr Warren: Louise Jameson
Dundas: Andrew Joshi
Fortnum: Adam Karim
Duke of York: Harry Kershaw
Braun: Billy Postlethwaite
Lady Pembroke: Sara Powell
Prince of Wales: Wilf Scolding
Papandiek: Jessica Temple
Writer Alan Bennett
Director Adam Penford
Designer Robert Jones
Lighting Designer Richard Howell
Sound Designer Tom Gibbons
Casting Sarah Bird CDG, Stuart Burt CDG
Movement Director Lizzi Gee
Fight Director Jonathan Holby
Director for Screen Matt Woodward
Technical Producer Christopher C Bretnall
Script Supervisor Laura Vine
Lighting Director Bernie Davis
Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher
Webcast , Theatre ,
2 hrs 10 min incl. brief interval
Offers compelling insights into universal human foibles at personal, national and global levels
Review by John Smythe 13th Jun 2020
It is reasonable to suppose an historical play by Alan Bennett will be more than a dramatised history lesson and The Madness of George III does not disappoint. It premiered at the National Theatre in 1991 and toured widely before being adapted to film, renamed The Madness of King George, so audiences in the USA wouldn’t think it was a sequel. Nevertheless this 2018 Nottingham Playhouse revival cannot help but resonate in the contemporary political climate with lines like, “America is lost!” and “Why do nice people never get the government?” (which we may smile at now, given world-wide approval of Jacinda Ardern’s leadership in New Zealand).
Of course in the play’s 1788 context, the Crown’s loss of America refers to the ex-colony’s hard-fought independence from Britain and at one point Bennett’s George III suggests this is what has made him mad: “I have had no peace of mind since we lost America.” 230 years on, in a rehearsal-period interview, Mark Gatiss, who plays George III, suggests the head-spin he is experiencing from the relentless Brexit debate is a potent portal to his understanding of the monarch’s mental state. Indeed director Adam Penford sees the whole ‘madness’ theme as a metaphor for Brexit.
Penford also reveals the theory at the time was that the king’s mania was caused by acute intermittent porphyria – blue urine being a symptom the production displays with clear glass chamber pots – but later thinking attributes it to a nervous breakdown, brought about by the years of repression he endured while being conditioned to become the king. Yet Bennett has the mental illness ‘specialist’ from Lincolnshire, Dr Willis, stating that a lifetime of “never being stood up to” has failed to equip him with the necessary strength of character. His remedy is to break him like a horse – and it works. Once back on his throne, however, the cured king does not accept the Willis-prescribed lack of deference shown by his equerries.
Bennett is not one to preordain which characters are ‘good’ and ‘bad’. All have flaws and saving graces, drawing us into a lively dance of recognition, empathy and judgement that may also provoke us to interrogate our own beliefs and values.
Certainly there is satire in the deliciously portrayed array of doctors from London’s Royal College of Physicians. Pulse-taking Dr Warren (Louise Jameson), the Prince of Wales’ personal physician, believes in bleeding and blistering to draw forth the poisons. Dr Baker (Stephanie Jacob) prescribes emetics so the king’s vomit can be analysed. Dr Pepys (Amanda Hadingue) goes to the opposite end to seek the answer in the royal stools, so prefers purgatives: “I always find the stool more eloquent than the pulse.” The idea that some self-styled ‘specialist’ from the provinces thinks he knows better than RCP-ordained general practitioners is anathema to them: “If that sort of partial medicine catches on, we’re finished!” Yet the way Dr Willis – emphatically played by Adrian Scarborough – sets out to ‘break’ George III is not easy to condone.
The grandeur of the king’s first entrance, to the resounding strains of Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ (composed for his grandfather George II and sung at coronations ever since), is followed by his airy dismissal of a dessert-knife wielding West Indian woman (Sara Powell) who wants the property due to her from the Crown of England: “She’s mad” (see what Bennett does there?). This sets George III up as out-of-touch and totally needing to be knocked off his pedestal. But Mark Gatiss navigates the beautifully-crafted role so superbly – from entitlement, arrogance and outbursts of anger through fear and bewilderment to vulnerability – that we cannot help but feel compassion.
Even the ever-fattening heir apparent (Wilf Scolding), who has had to cultivate languor while waiting to succeed his father, gets his moment: “To be Prince of Wales is not a position, it’s a predicament.” Debra Gillett’s devoted Queen Charlotte, who has borne 15 children to the man she first met on their wedding day, is fiercely protective of him but relegated to the background when arguably he needs her most. Or is she an enabler of the condition that leads to his ‘madness’? Sara Powell, as her Lady of the Bedchamber, Lady Pembroke, speaks non-verbal volumes about the lot of women in court.
The role of government in 18th century Britain is concisely personified as its leaders attempt to cope with an increasingly deranged king and his louche son, ambitious for the baubles of office. Tory Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (Nicholas Bishop) is unwilling to countenance the ‘madness’. Whig leader of the opposition, James Fox (Amanda Hadingue), sees the opportunity to win a vote of no confidence and thereby become PM, even if it means supporting the Prince of Wales.
Given more dimension as a ‘worried well’ politician is David Hounslow’s Lord Chancellor, Baron Thurlow, willing to serve under either PM. His blind reading of Cordelia in a poignant post-madness scene from King Lear (Act IV, Scene 7), chosen by an on-the-mend King George III, is humorously guttural, yet it is the import of the king’s return to sanity that prevails dramatically.
Multiple scenes in a range of settings require staging akin to a Shakespeare play and Designer Robert Jones, Lighting Designer Richard Howell and Sound Designer Tom Gibbons facilitate Adam Penford’s fluid flow of dynamic direction – with Director for Screen Matt Woodward pulling focus to the play’s essential action. Although The Madness of George III is vocally pitched for the large Nottingham Playhouse – and therefore very clearly articulated – it offers compelling insights into universal human foibles at personal, national and global levels.
While New Zealand theatre is beginning to return to live venues, at least five more National Theatre at Home productions are scheduled.
See The Madness of George III here (until 19 June, NZ time).
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