Alan Bennet is one of the defining British voices of his generation, his work spanning radio, television, film and stage. His craft with words is singular in its wit and melancholy, and he has been responsible for some of the most beloved writing in Britain over the past forty years, including his Talking Heads miniseries and his acclaimed play ‘The History Boys’. His first major international success came in 1991 with his award-winning play ‘The Madness of George III’, an epic dramatisation of the first period of madness of the British monarch in 1788. This past year, the play was revived by the Nottingham Playhouse in the UK, and now comes to Australian audiences thanks to National Theatre Live.
The play covers the first attack of severe mental illness that afflicted George III (Mark Gatiss, TV's 'The League of Gentlemen' and 'Sherlock') and threw the British Empire into chaos. There was no precedence for such an event, with his wife Queen Charlotte (Debra Gillett) and Prime Minister William Pitt (Nicholas Bishop) both holding back George’s heir the Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding) from taking power, and trying to find a way to help the King. As the political power plays become more intricate, the welfare of George becomes a pawn, putting him in jeopardy.
I’d not read or seen the play before (or the award-winning 1995 film), but what struck me about it on first introduction here, even after nearly twenty years, was what an ambitious epic it was. Structured like a Shakespeare and with the wit of a Moliere, ‘The Madness of George III’ moves as furiously as George’s illness, a breathless work that balances bawdy humour with genuine human drama. Bennett revels in the political machinations, but keeps it grounded in the tragic circumstances of a man losing his mind for reasons he and no one else can grasp. His doctors pull on every method they can to find a cure, and it’s to Bennett’s credit that he allows their archaic methods of blood-letting, blistering, sweating and stool observation be equal parts hysterical and disturbing. As George heads further towards the brink of sanity, so do does the country, and what strikes you about the play is the harrowing way in which the ambitious use his weakness to their advantage at almost every turn. George’s madness could mean endless social and political advancement, where both the country and the patient become secondary to personal gain. There are all the hallmarks of a comfortable British comedy-drama, the kind that would satisfy a matinee audience, but there’s a brutality to ‘The Madness of George III’, an emotional honesty that strikes when you least expect it. Bennett’s very particular voice and ability with melancholy are unleashed in full force at almost every turn, and even after all this time, you feel him reaching further than he has before, grasping something new and dangerous, and arriving there with thrilling results.
In terms of its execution, director Adam Penford’s production mostly lives up to the text. The epic nature of the play is embraced enthusiastically with grand production and costume design from Robert Jones that emulates the mechanisms of an intricate clock, reflected in Tom Gibbons sound design. There’s a stylised Regency theatricality to Penfold’s approach that mostly works, and there’s a level of detail in the relationships and performances, as well as a fresh understanding of Bennett’s language, that goes beyond the tired approach Nicholas Hytner employs with Bennett’s work. However, you often feel as if the play is bursting at the seams, that what the production offers isn’t enough for it. There’s always a question with revisiting classics around whether they have anything immediate or new to say to us now, and it’s clear pretty quickly that this play still has resonance, especially in the discussion of mental health. Yet the production never really goes far enough in exploring that, as if it’s satisfied to let it be what it is. The metaphors in the play and in the design are also not taken full advantage of, so that what threatens to be a really rigorous, thrilling production never gets there.
There’s a brutality to ‘The Madness of George III’, an emotional honesty that strikes when you least expect it.
This really comes through in Mark Gatiss’ performance, which like the play itself, seems to be greater than the production can handle. We’re so used to Gatiss being the quirky supporting character in television shows like ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Game of Thrones’, so it’s quite something to see how remarkable an actor he truly is. His George begins as generous and eccentric, but his descent into madness is unforgiving and unrelenting, and the raw pain and confusion in Gatiss’ performance is often heartbreaking to watch. He has such a genuine chemistry with the whole cast, especially Debra Gillett, so much so that you really do feel her absence in the best way when she’s not there. The supporting cast is really wonderful, but the gender-blind casting of Stephanie Jacob, Louise Jameson and Amanda Hadingue as his three general physicians are a real highlight, masters at balancing the wit, tragedy and horror of Bennett’s play. This is also one of the better presentations from National Theatre Live, with screen director Matt Woodward capturing both the minutiae of the performances and the scale of Penford’s production.
While this Nottingham Playhouse production of ‘The Madness of George III’ isn’t a revelation, it is a wonderful revival of the play, and it’s clear that Adam Penford adores Alan Bennett’s text. This is a play of the kind of scale we can’t see in Australia on a professional level, so this National Theatre Live screening offers us a rare opportunity to see the play at all, bolstered by a tremendous performance from Mark Gatiss. The production may not have made a lasting impression, but I walked away with enormous admiration for the play, and that if anything is a great deed in itself.