THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III
Theatre Royal, Nottingham, Monday 3rd October, 2011
Alan Bennett moved away from talk of tea towels and drama centred on biscuits for one of his historical plays, of which this is surely the finest example.
Years before we all got warm and fuzzy about the monarchy because of The King’s Speech, Bennett gave us this portrayal of one of the earlier Georges. At first a success on the London stage, it was later adapted into a very successful film starring the late lamented Nigel Hawthorne. On screen the locations and the lavish attention to detail brought the period to life, but this Theatre Royal Bath production takes an impressionistic view. The set consists of doors and door frames that slide on and off stage. A collection of empty picture frames descends from the flies to suggest an interior of Windsor Castle. Furniture is kept to a minimum. An ornate but small table represents the House of Commons. It is an effective approach. Although the costumes have not been stinted on, this is a production that allows the characters the foreground, defined as they so splendidly are by Bennett’s sparkling dialogue.
David Haig rules the stage with his masterly performance as the troubled king. His descent from eccentricity to full-on bat shit is both credible and touching. His restoration to sound mental health in the final scenes is like the sun coming out after a month of rain.
He is more than ably supported by a huge cast – again it is refreshing to see a touring show that does not cut corners. While some have more to do than others, all assist in giving us this glimpse into history. Exchanges between politicians have satirical resonance with today, perhaps more so than when the play first appeared. “Government has nothing to do with thrift” they announce. The knowing laughter from the audience was more than tinged with bitterness. A good deal of the humour comes from irony – the play doesn’t require us to have any specific historical awareness but a passing acquaintance with current affairs unlocks many rewards. As in Bennett’s The History Boys the past is used to provide understanding of the present. There is also much fun to be had mocking the representatives of the medical profession and their woeful and misguided attempts to treat mental illness through various means of torture and physical abuse. One walks around with a chamberpot containing the latest Royal Stool, enthusing about it like an eighteenth century Gillian McKeith.
In one scene, when His Majesty is up to it, the characters resort to a spot of drama therapy by reading aloud from King Lear. The Lord Chamberlain, having given a bluff and septuagenarian Cordelia, is of the opinion that Shakespeare’s masterpiece is too tragic and he would prefer a happy ending. This is what Bennett gives us, King Lear with a happy ending. The monarch overcomes his madness. His offspring and other political manipulators are kept in their place. The status quo is re-established. This depiction of George III has touched us so much that, as we file out from the auditorium, we believe this is only right and proper, and Bennett, like Colin Firth three Georges down the bloodline, makes royalists of us all.