The Brian Jonestown Massacre once said, ‘Thank God for mental illness.’ English playwright, Alan Bennett shares this sentiment. His dark comedy, The Madness of King George III has been revived at Nottingham Playhouse and will be broadcast around the world for NT Live. In short, it offers an enjoyable history lesson and proves that no one is immune to mental illness.
This play could be used as a talking point for discussions around psychology and psychiatry. But it is also a character study about king and country, which often feels like a cautionary tale in how not to tackle this delicate subject. This could be because there are moments where Bennett (The History Boys, The Lady in the Van) is faithful to the time period. Sensibilities have changed and there is some disconnect there.
Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) stars as the titular character in 1786. He carries this play as a kind of tragic King Lear-like character who has a tenuous link with reality. That is until he descends into complete madness. Bennett strives to find the irony in every situation, even with the King’s long-suffering wife Charlotte (Debra Gillett) by his side. Several doctors try different remedies and Dr Willis (Adrian Scarborough) is the most humane in his approach.
Director, Adam Penford has given some things a contemporary flavour in this adaptation. He has cast: Nadia Albina, Amanda Hadingue and Stephanie Jacob in traditionally-male roles. This is refreshing to watch.
This play has high production values with luscious costumes that feel faithful to the era. Designer, Robert Jones’s set boasts rooms which move and change to reflect the varying levels of the king’s mental state. These are the doors of perception in action.
Amidst the king’s crazed and troubled mind, the vultures circle and political machinations and scheming take precedent over caring for his well-being. His son, the indulgent Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding), eyes off the top job. The politicians meanwhile, get into the same sort of fervent political battles seen in the Ides of March. This play is an episodic dance of power and helplessness in the public eye and we’re not always sure precisely who is leading here.
The Madness of King George III is a clever and subtle play that still resonates today. It explores some fine lines between regent and man, and sane versus certifiable. Bennet’s play is ultimately a contemporary yet timeless portrait of a man who walks the thin line between being fit for a king.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Madness of George III will be broadcast live to cinemas, in National Theatre Live’s first ever broadcast from Nottingham Playhouse, from December 15th by Sharmill Films.