The Madness of George III – National Theatre at Home

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Alan Bennett

Director: Adam Penford

Thanks to theatre, young people know quite a lot about the mental health of King George III. They know from seeing or listening to the hit musical Hamilton in which the mad monarch takes to the stage at intervals, proclaiming You’ll Be Back to his rebellious American colonies. Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, which premiered at the National Theatre in 1991 and was adapted into an Oscar-nominated 1994 film (The Madness of King George), takes the history lesson several stages further and reflects on the contagion of insanity spreading through the corridors of power.

The version being streamed here is a recording of Adam Penford’s lavish 2019 revival at Nottingham Playhouse, performed by a cast of 17, with palatial sets and sumptuous period costumes, both designed by Robert Jones. Director for the screen Matt Woodward uses multiple cameras, drawing the viewer into the drama with sharp close ups and ensuring sound recording which makes every syllable of dialogue clearly audible.

Dr Willis (Adrian Scarborough), who is called in as a last hope of curing the King’a undiagnosed malady, asserts: “the state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier”. Bennett sets out to explore that frontier. The writing is peppered with acerbic wit and cutting allusions to modern politics, but it never betrays the essential tragedy of a ruler losing his grip on power. Accordingly,  Penford’s production keeps a surefooted balance between the tone of Blackadder the Third and that of King Lear.

Mark Gatiss made his name in dark comedy and that experience serves him well. He makes George laughable and pitiable in turns and his clashes with Scarborough’s bold, uncompromising physician are riveting. Nicknamed “Farmer George” in his early reign, we see George as a man of simple tastes and ideas, referring to himself and his Queen (Debra Gillet) as “Mr and Mrs King”. He keeps the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger (Nicholas Bishop), an equally dull man, in office and thereby secures a tight grip on the nation’s purse strings.

George’s mental frailty becomes a spur to the ambitions of his extravagant and obese oldest son, also George (Wilf Scolding) to stake a claim to take over as Regent, supported by opposition leader Fox (Amanda Hadingue), and political manoeuvrings begin. Gender blind casting adds to the feel of comedy but the contrast between incompetent male physicians played by females (Stephanie Jacob and Louise Jameson) and Scarborough’s competent one makes a sexist suggestion that is, at least, rather unkind.

Oddly, Bennett seems to come down firmly on the side of a dreary monarch, who is remembered chiefly for losing America, and against his flamboyant son, who was to become figurehead of the lauded Regency era. There is much to debate, but this recording does full justice to a majestic work of theatre, capturing the spectacle of period drama while telling a human story with humour and imagination.

Available here until 18 June 2020




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