I am embarrassed to admit that prior to watching this play, the extent of my knowledge of George III came from CBBC’s Horrible Histories and the musical Hamilton. In the former, George’s mental illness is just a massive joke; in the latter he is pre-madness George, a camp and capricious king playing at colonialism as if it is an amusing game. I hoped, therefore, to come away from this play with a wider view of George III, but unfortunately was left with almost the same knowledge as HH and Hamilton had taught me – he lost the American Revolution, and then went mad.
Nevertheless, Adam Penford’s direction, combined with Alan Bennett’s tongue-in-cheek text, makes for an entertaining watch. Impeccably pompous RP accents carry brilliant one-liners, such as “you scabby bumsucker” and “you spunk-splasher”. (I really hope these were authentic Georgian insults.) However, this is one of the first times that an NT Live film has negatively impacted my viewing experience. National Theatre At Home heavily relies on close-up shots to fully appreciate characterisation. In The Madness of George III, where facial expressions are key, the fast-paced comic rhythm combined with overcrowded scenes meant that I could never fully engage with the action through a digital medium.
The play is set in 1788-89, during which King George III suffered and was cured from his first period of mental illness. Alan Bennett explains that this specific timeline is music to a playwright’s ears; there is a beginning, middle and end. However, this made for a somewhat limited plotline which essentially consisted of him going ‘mad’, and then getting better. I would have preferred to watch the end of his reign play out, when in 1811 he was deemed permanently unfit to rule and his son took over as regent. That said, Mark Gatiss handles his character’s journey impressively. His deterioration is swift yet subtle, and at the peak of George’s instability his performance is staggering. His recovery is also convincing, as he slowly begins to regain his humour, speech and mannerisms.
The majority of the comedy comes from a gaggle of incompetent doctors (who, questionably, are all played by women). They bicker over the best remedies for George’s ailment; one eccentric doctor is fixated by thorough examinations of the king’s excrement, while another favours blatant torture – toilet humour is certainly at play here.
For a modern British audience, it is strange to imagine a time when the monarch had so much power, and Bennett succeeds in exploring the complexities of royal authority. Gavin and Stacey‘s Adrian Scarborough is confident and commanding as Dr Willis, who promises to cure the king, but on the condition that he sacrifice his authority and fully submit to Willis’ methods. This is epitomised by an intense moment where George desperately proclaims “I am the King of England”, only to be told, “No. You are the patient”.
Another prominent theme is the gap between public perceptions of royalty and the realities of their private lives. Nadia Albina is ruthless as Fitzroy, the King’s ‘aide-de-camp’ (a regal term for personal assistant), whose sole concern is keeping up appearances. Whether George is prancing about to Handel, linking arms with the Queen and chortling “Mr and Mrs King”, or forcefully restrained in a straitjacket and spouting nonsense; Fitzroy clearly cares more about the king’s image than his welfare.
In light of the recent calls for the UK to better educate its citizens on our colonial history, it was interesting to hear Bennett’s take on George III’s involvement in colonisation: he takes the loss of America like a blow to his pride, lamenting that his Great Britain could become “an island reduced to itself alone”. He has no regard for the lives he affects and every regard for his own ego.
Overall, The Madness of George IIl is an enjoyable production with an obvious standout performance from Gatiss. When regional theatres around the country are particularly suffering amidst the pandemic, it is refreshing to see NT At Home venturing beyond London. Nottingham Playhouse’s new Curtain Up Appeal will hopefully garner more financial support for the theatre and draw necessary attention to the work of local artists that make their living there – and in these difficult times, that is one of the best things we can do.
Words by Franky Lynn.