The Madness of George III at Theatre Royal, Bath
PUBLISHED: 12:42 22 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:53 20 February 2013
Katie Jarvis experiences a play about insanity that deserves rave reviews
The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett's play is an astonishing portrayal of the fragility of the human condition, as Katie Jarvis discovers
What a combination: our beloved Alan Bennett, our esteemed Peter Hall Company, and our 18th century King, whose profound interest in and love for Britain despite his Hanoverian roots is often reduced to a prurient fascination with his bouts of insanity.
- Do you know England? - Yes.
Brighton, Bath, yes.
But you know its mills and manufactories?
Do you know its farms? Because I do.
Do you know what they call me? Farmer George.
- Do you know what that is? - Impertinent, sir?
No, sir. Love!
And what a wonderful play The Madness of George III is. I have no idea as to the historical accuracy; nor of the extent to which the stage personas reflected the real-life characters involved (probably closely). But it really doesnt signify: for the truth of this drama lies elsewhere. It lies in human psychology; in societal analysis; in making us think about what it means to be sane. Bennetts vision ranges from French farce to Lear-like depths, taking in Moliere and Frayn in between, and for good reason.
The action is set against political scheming, where one mans downfall provides a body for another to stand on. And a King, who derives his strength from a supportive marriage and a relationship with his drab but rock-steady Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger.
When it becomes clear that the Kings eccentricities are morphing into something more sinister, the action switches to three doctors, whose pragmatic coalition is more sinister that that of Macbeths witches. As they disagree over the correct way to treat a condition that none of them can even identify, the King loses his divine right along with his mental faculties and melts into mere flesh to be pummelled and scalded in the name of a cure.
It was hard to pinpoint the moment at which comedy turned to tragedy; but Peter Halls company knew it to the second. For the audience it was a subtle change: when the easy laughter at comic interludes uncomfortably acquired the hollow braying of spectators watching the antics of the Bedlamites. Lear made his appearance when the King, suffering beyond endurance from demons within, was tortured into sanity by his desperate doctors. It was a scene difficult to watch, impossible to turn from. The utterly brilliant David Haig donned his grotesque mask of insanity and turned it on an audience who could barely breathe; his torments were our own reflected back at us. Here is madness, a state so alien to the common man that we see within it something terrifyingly familiar: our horror; our fear; our confusion of what it is to be human.
Every nuance was brought out by this masterful company. Director Christopher Luscombe missed no opportunity to catch at meaningful details. The King, raving and uncontrollable, met his insanely rational son the dissolute Prince of Wales, fopped to perfection by Christopher Keegan as a distorted image in a fairground mirror. While their situations and aims were anathema to each other, there was tellingly clever mimicry within their actions, each to the other. Society considered one mad and the other sane; but who exactly is to make that call? Luscombe seemed to be asking.
The politics of the day were inextricably woven into the fabric of events, which makes the first half dramatically different from the second. The scheming (and genuinely-named) Fox versus the dour Pitt were illuminatingly played by Gary Oliver and Nicholas Rowe respectively. Just as the play has its light and dark moments, so the characters were divided into intense and frippery, as if the actors from Hamlet had hopelessly collided with the cast of Blackadder at the stage door; indeed, that very juxtaposition provides a hugely accessible simplification of the workings of the 18th century court. So many were utterly believable, including Beatie Edney as Queen Charlotte, and the brilliant dosage of doctors.
But the present audiences wasnt the only laughter in the theatre. For eerily echoing down from the future were the strains of gaffawing generations to come, mocking our own beliefs as much as we mocked those of our ancestors. The conversation by the general practitioner doctors denigrating specialist medics had a particularly Woody Allen Sleeper quality about them.
Fantastically thought-provoking. This is a play about insanity that deserves rave reviews.
'The Madness of George III' presented by The Peter Hall Company 2011, directed by Christopher Luscombe, at the Theatre Royal, Bath until Saturday, September 3. Tickets:16.50-32.50
Theatre Royal Box Office, tel: 01225 448844;www.theatreroyal.org.uk