fri 20/05/2022

The Madness of George III, National Theatre at Home review – a powerful, elegant depiction | reviews, news & interviews

The Madness of George III, National Theatre at Home review – a powerful, elegant depiction

The Madness of George III, National Theatre at Home review – a powerful, elegant depiction

A story told with the wit and elegance of a tune played on a harpsichord

Trapped by power: Mark Gatiss and Debra Gillett

It has been the fate of George III – who on many levels was a visionary and accomplished monarch – to go down in history as a comic figure, most famed for losing first America and then his mind.

This Nottingham Playhouse production tells his story with all the wit and elegance of a tune played on a harpsichord, yet it is made remarkable by the way in which it simultaneously excavates the pain and pathos underlying his condition.

That is due not least to an extraordinary performance from Mark Gatiss in the title role. Gatiss arrives in this production on the wings of a prolific and varied TV career, yet here he demonstrates himself to be every bit as much a creature of the stage as he charts George’s decline from benign eccentricity into verbally incoherent despair.  

Gatiss fans are familiar with the biographical detail that he grew up opposite Winterton Psychiatric Hospital in County Durham, where his father was chief engineer. Many have connected that time of his life with some of the more gothic manifestations of The League of Gentlemen, but he himself has declared that it was far more helpful for his portrayal of what he has diagnosed as the king’s “massive nervous breakdown”.

There is no shortage of detail in Alan Bennett’s deft, funny script as to why anyone in George’s position might find themselves tipped over the edge. This first bout of madness (it recurred in 1801 and finally in 1810) began in 1788, not a great time for monarchs in general given what would happen to France’s Louis XVI a year later in 1789. England was far from immune to the tensions that led to the French revolution, and though the assassination attempt on George shown at the start of the play is comically inept, it demonstrates the undercurrents of political hostility against him. Beyond that he is clearly haunted, on a political level by the loss of America, and on a personal level by the death of his son Octavius – a tragedy compounded by the fact that his oldest surviving son is a corpulent troublemaker greedy for his throne.

Gatiss begins the play by revelling in George III’s determined bumbling ordinariness – one particularly amusing scene sees him and Debra Gillett’s Queen Charlotte cheerily addressing each other as Mr and Mrs King in bed. The first sign of his forthcoming breakdown comes simply in a lilt of the voice: as he describes the gruesome torture of a Frenchman ripped apart by horses, a slight faltering in his tone suddenly reveals the depth of his pain at the cruelty of the world around him. In the full onset of madness we watch him switch between rage and plaintiveness, mania and desolation as he roams across the stage, bald and half-naked as an escapee from Bedlam in a Hogarth cartoon. Gatiss’s career has been marked in recent years by his urbane, elegant embodiments of those in power, yet here he gives a simultaneously compelling and uninhibited portrayal of inner torment and devastation.

It is of course the mark of his rank that his own mental collapse threatens the collapse of the entire political order. Adam Penford’s slickly orchestrated production amusingly highlights the conflicting agendas of Prime Minister William Pitt as he tries to hold the government together, and Charles Fox, leader of the Whig opposition and revolutionary sympathiser.

As Pitt, Nicholas Bishop (pictured above, front, second from left) puts in an empathetic, honourable performance – the play sheers away from his clampdowns on civil liberties to focus on his support for the king and the lingering trauma from his own father’s madness. Amanda Hadingue’s Fox is less subversively charismatic than 18th century accounts suggest him to be, yet her spirited performance sustains the playfully hostile dynamic between the two, not least in parliament scenes where the rowdiness is sustained by depicting half the politicians as masks held up on sticks. (Possibly a technique that could be adopted in our own Covid-wrecked world…)

Of all the productions seen by this reviewer to date, this one works particularly well on TV. Some of this is to do with performances that are both arresting and unforced. Some of it is to do with Robert Jones’ effective, simple design which allows the predominantly red and black costumes of the royal household to blaze strikingly against a cool green panelled set with shiny reflective floors, stylishly evoking the interiors of the royal residences at Windsor and Kew. 

There is also the riveting psychological dynamic between the king and Adrian Scarborough’s Dr Willis, the plain-talking sceptic who eventually guides him back to sanity. Against Bennett’s satirical portrait of London’s top physicians fumbling their way towards a cure, Scarborough stands out as the defiant outsider. The moment when he suddenly declares to George that “your improprieties are deliberate”, is one of the most moving and resonant points of the evening. A moment that shows – perhaps all too relevantly – that when the political and scientific stakes are high, without clear-sightedness and emotional truth the trappings of power count for nothing. 


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