“The state of monarch and the state of lunacy share a frontier”
Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III is perhaps better known under its film moniker of The Madness of King George which featured a superlative performance from Nigel Hawthorne who originated the role on stage which was then later immortalised on film and criminally overlooked for an Oscar: a certain Mr Hanks winning instead for Forrest Gump. This Theatre Royal Bath production, starring David Haig as the eponymous monarch, is touring the country for the next couple of months, marking a rare outing for the play.
The year is 1788 and fresh from defeat in the American War of Independence, George III is increasingly afflicted by a mysterious ailment as he slides into mental decline. He is then subjected to the vagaries of 18th century medical practices which were only slowly making advances towards a more modern understanding of the body and mind and whilst undergoing treatment, power struggles rage between opportunistic politicians on both side and more crucially, his fiercely ambitious son and heir who has his eyes on an early assumption of power.
It is a gift of a role for an actor and David Haig rises admirably to the challenge, highlighting the especial cruelty of mental illness in those who are particularly bright and at a time of so little understanding. He portrays the decline so well, never letting us forget the intellect and gravitas that remains, however vestigially, in the darkest moments and holding onto a warmth in his performance that keeps us thoroughly invested in his fate.
An extravagantly lavish cast provide sterling support in the flashes of scenes that swirl around the King. Clive Francis’ Lincolnshire doctor whose acuity gets closer to a cure than any of the sycophancy practised by the court physicians; Thomas Wheatley’s Lord Chancellor, constantly shifting allegiances to ensure his personal survival; Christopher Keegan’s spoilt brat of a Prince Regent, his scheming head turned by the politicking of Gary Oliver’s Fox. I also enjoyed Nicholas Rowe’s wiry Pitt, no angel himself, but wished there had been more of a role for Beatie Edney’s Queen Charlotte, underused given how moving her little interactions with her ‘Mr King’ frequently are.
Bennett’s writing has lots of his customary humour and wordplay and it is largely excellently done. But it does come at the expense of any substantial depth to the play, the attractive historical material ultimately feeling a tad superficial. That said, with as excellent a central performance as we get from Haig, this barely registers in a production which combines the beautifully subtle – a touching recital of King Lear – with the delightfully bombastic – a blast of Handel’s Zadok the Priest makes for a stunningly evocative end to Act One.