The Madness of George III – Review – Junction Goole (Satellite Screening)
By Rachael Popow, November 2018
It’s probably not that surprising that the director of a revived play thinks the work still has relevance. But when, during the short introductory film that precedes the live broadcast of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III, director Adam Penford suggests that the monarch’s condition is the perfect metaphor for Brexit, it provokes a very loud, disapproving tut from somewhere in the Goole Junction’s auditorium.
Luckily for that disgruntled audience member, the Nottingham Playhouse’s production of Bennett’s 1991 play doesn’t strain too hard to make the link. Instead, it’s perfectly possible to relate to The Madness of George III as a fascinating slice of history – and a reminder of how far we’ve come in the treatment of mental illness – rather than a comment on the current state of the nation.
“Very physical performance”
That’s partly due to The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, who takes the title role. He is funny in the early scenes, when the monarch is mildly eccentric, which makes it all the more distressing when George III becomes increasingly ill. The doctors who are called in to treat him prescribe everything from bleeding to blistering, and it’s not just the bandages and sores that make the King appear pained – Gatiss’s powerful, very physical performance shows just how tormented he is. He’s also very touching in the play’s most moving scene, where he reads from King Lear.
There’s strong support from Adrian Scarborough as Dr Willis, who oversees much of the King’s treatment, and Debra Gillett as the devoted Queen Charlotte (or Mrs King, as her husband affectionately calls her).
It’s a more sympathetic portrayal of George III then you will find in another current stage hit, the musical Hamilton, which views him through the eyes of America’s founding fathers. But like Hamilton, Penford’s production makes some non-traditional casting choices, including women in the roles of some of the doctors and politicians who see a chance to take advantage of the King’s illness.
It’s another touch that brings the play into the 21st century – and the jokes about the restrictions of being Prince of Wales are arguably even sharper now. (Bennett admits that when he wrote the play, he was thinking of Prince Charles, but he probably didn’t suspect the now 70-year-old heir would still be a king-in-waiting 27 years later.)
Along with the great performances, it all makes a case for Bennett’s play as an enduring classic – even if you choose not to see it as a metaphor for Brexit.