sat 13/07/2024

The Madness of George III, Apollo Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Madness of George III, Apollo Theatre

The Madness of George III, Apollo Theatre

The madness would be in missing this fine revival of Alan Bennett's history play

George III (David Haig) at the shared frontier of monarchy and madness

Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III has enjoyed something of a royal progress around England over the past year. Touring in Christopher Luscombe’s slick production for the Peter Hall Company, the show has finally arrived in the West End.

The part of the ailing and eccentric monarch (“a catalogue of regal non-conformities”), and indeed the play itself, may have become synonymous with Nigel Hawthorne, but after an evening spent getting to know David Haig’s altogether more robust King George, there are surely few who would question him as the role’s legitimate heir: no hint of a troubled theatrical Regency here.

Most recently seen blustering his way through Jim Hacker’s political tribulations in Yes, Prime Minister, Haig here gets a chance to bring his tragic as well as comic skills to bear in what – despite its large cast – often feels like a one-man show. Bennett’s writing is tight, epigrammatic, rarely broadening into anything resembling character for anyone other than the king. While this should (and very occasionally does) stunt the drama, for the most part it creates clarity, leaving the single figure of the monarch cleanly silhouetted against a backdrop of political history and dynastic intrigue.

We open to a drum roll – the pomp and ritual of royal pageantry displayed as the cast advances solemnly towards the audience. “The state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier,” Dr Willis (Clive Francis) later observes. It’s a truth played out in tableau here; the alienation, conspicuous exposure and vulnerability of the former clearly evident, even before the abortive assassination attempt.

Haig (pictured right) plays the king of the opening with little regard for his later decline. Incorrigibly energetic, his excess impetus channelled into wit as sharp and brusque as his movements. The tragedy here, Bennett is clear, is a Shakespearean one of truths and appearances. “I have always been myself, but now I seem myself,” he acknowledges on the other side of his sickness. These are the pangs of a man whose rational, sentient being is retained in some small degree, even during his most humiliating episodes – a man sane enough to know himself mad. While his comedy is finely tuned (that of the King Lear scene most painfully so) Haig is most striking in extremity. His convulsive, mercurial madness retains a foot in the King’s original character, the traces of former selfhood heightening the shocking metamorphosis, the distortion of character and characteristics.

The supporting cast are led by Beatie Edney’s never overstated Queen Charlotte – the quietly devoted wife with whom George could play at being Mr and Mrs King – while Nicholas Rowe (making a speciality of steely statesmen, following his turn as Lancelot Andrews in last year’s Into Thy Hands) makes for a Prime Minister often more subtle in delivery than on Bennett’s page.

Rowe’s straight, restrained performance is set against Christopher Keegan’s riotously comic Prince of Wales – “to be the heir to the throne is not a position, it is a predicament”. Fat and fluting, resembling nothing so much as an 18th-century Pigling Bland (if Bland had put on a few pounds over Christmas and favoured violet stockings and a periwig), Keegan joins the trio of doctors (of which Peter Pacey’s sanguine Sir George Baker is the stand-out) in providing the evening’s big laughs.

Janet Bird’s designs retain all the crispness of a touring show, with Bennett’s choppy scene changes (you have to admire a man capable of writing an entire scene just to accommodate a one-liner involving chamber pots and Pitts Elder and Younger) flowing mercifully swiftly thanks to these and Luscombe’s efficient direction.

If there is a fault here it’s one of glibness – a sin that begins in Bennett’s own text, and one not aided by the performing edition in use. There is a pathos in the happy ending, the return to kingly authority that we know to be all too provisional, but when wrapped in the plush, ice-cream-at-the-interval trappings of the West End, it’s easy to ignore. Haig is the anchor that grounds the play in something more than one-liners and digested historical narrative; as weighty performances go his is as fine a one as currently on display in London’s theatres.

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