Writer: Alan Bennett
Directors: Nick Bartlett and Sarah Mann
With dazzling performances from a 23-strong cast, sumptuous costumes and even a choir, The Madness of George III is brought exuberantly to Brighton Open Air Theatre by Sarah Mann Company. This exploration into a sovereign’s descent into mental illness might seem an unusual subject for a night at the theatre but it follows in a long tradition of patriarchs losing their wits. Writer Alan Bennett even reminds us so, by putting the words of King Lear into his sovereign’s mouth in a scene where George III insists his Lord Chancellor assumes the role of Cordelia.
Having previously taken on The Lady in the Van, another of Alan Bennett’s plays that deals with what it means to be sane, the company is no stranger to the subject. They expertly bring to The Madness of George III an energy that makes for an uplifting and hopeful theatrical experience. First performed in 1991 at the Royal National Theatre, London, there are still many ways this play remains relevant today as it focuses on some of Bennett’s favourite themes: status, societal roles, neuroses and the absurdity of humanity. Many will draw parallels to the current ruling classes. Indeed, there is even a Machiavellian Boris Johnson vibe to Paddy Cooper’s languid portrayal of The Prince of Wales.
Although the subject is dark, you can expect Bennett’s signature flavour of humour. We open on a king (Nathan Ariss) who appears in good health and upbeat spirits, “What, what?” However, the tone shifts as his mental health declines. With George’s slide into madness, political vultures and suspect doctors form an ever-tighter circle around him, isolating his majesty and arguing over his treatment. Queen Charlotte (Sarah Mann), affectionately referred to as ‘Mrs King’ by her husband, is distressingly separated from him as his health worsens. Their sons, The Prince of Wales (Paddy Cooper) and The Duke of York (Amelia Armande), wait villainously in the wings plotting, scheming and sitting about extravagantly on gloriously miniature chaise lounges.
For a play that changes location often, it makes perfect sense to signify spaces with limited set dressing and instead through the use of easily movable chairs. It means the appearance of the restraining chair is also all the more striking in contrast to the luxurious seating. Our sense of horror is increased that a vulnerable person could be extracted from their comfortable surroundings and submitted to such harsh treatment.
Nathan Ariss is outstanding as King George III. His suffering at the hands of the blundering and abusive doctors is exceptionally moving. For anyone who has ever cared for an ailing, delirious parent or loved one, the performance is likely to strike a chord. When you couple this with the expectations and pomp surrounding a sovereign, it’s a fascinating exploration into how we care for figures of authority when they can no longer care for themselves. The doctors with their own unique specialisms and disturbing characteristics are brilliantly portrayed by Doug Devaney, Robert Cohen, Ross Gurney-Randall and Julian Parkin.
Jack Kristiansen affectingly leads a collection of footmen and attendants (including Luke Seymour, Rachel Mullock and Andrew Crouch), who beautifully bring a human eye to the King’s treatment, as does the attitude of Pitt, portrayed strikingly by Josh Crisp. Reminded of his own father’s mental health struggles, Pitt hits the drink as the King’s case becomes more severe. Bennett’s mastery at handling the preoccupations that reveal his characters’ complex inner worlds is ever present, whether it’s through the pompous Thurlow’s (Murray Simon) obsession concerning his ‘wiry’ pulse, or the sadistic need of Dr George Baker (Robert Cohen) to set Thurlow a jitter in the first place.
As he does with The Lady in the Van, Bennett asks with The Madness of George III: who is really sane here? He leaves us to wonder: is it the politicians who fight over the spoils or the doctors who obsess about their specialisms? Is it the footmen and attendants who are pained by the interruption of their rigidly observed rituals or the sons waiting decadently in the wings for a position which, money aside, they aren’t even sure will suit them?
How much madder was George when he was seemingly sane and conducting all the pomp and performance? As he says: “I have always been myself even when I was ill. Only now I seem myself. That’s the important thing. I have remembered how to seem. What, what?”
An excellent production of a thought-provoking play, with superb performances, Sarah Mann Company’s The Madness of George III reigns supreme.
Reviewed on 13th July.