Acclaimed British playwright Alan Bennett explores the darkness of mental illness with language and characters that make you laugh and cry in The Madness of George III.
The play, first seen in 1991, when it starred Nigel Hawthorne, is rarely staged, possibly because it needs an exceptional actor to play the title role. Hawthorne was so brilliant in the play and film that many must have felt they could not match him.
However the Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company is not easily daunted and they are staging it at the Guildhall Theatre in Derby this month.
Based on real events that shook the foundations of Britain’s Court and Parliament, the play takes a traditional, early 19th century Royal family and drops them into a seething 21st century hotbed of political spin. Bennett’s nod to the Bard, invoking Shakespeare’s own exploration of madness in King Lear, runs throughout the play making it an obvious prelude to this theatre group’s production of King Lear which is coming next year.
Niki Caister’s production carefully balances the contrasts of mood and character. She works with precision and care but never neglects the subtleties of plot, dialogue and setting. Derby audiences will remember Niki’s successful production of “The History Boys” for the company.
The role of King George (Gordon Gell) would appear to be something of an endurance test. With all its fits and roars his basic decency shines through the darkness. In George’s delusional state his main symptoms are Logorrhoea “I have to talk to keep up with my thoughts”, the use of previously un-voiced obscenities, purple urine and a sexual obsession with Lady Pembroke (Caroline McLeod). The role demands a huge amount of physical and mental dexterity.
Some of the most affecting scenes are between George and Queen Charlotte (Stephanie Mee); these scenes reassure the audience that a return to normality for the King will be a return to his commitment to his wife, his country and his people.
Apart from those already mentioned; the cast list includes experienced and popular actors: Alan Smith returns as William Pitt, Richard Whitehorn combines compassion and asperity as Dr. Willis, James Dean is the Prince of Wales and Chris Scott is Edward Thurlow, Lord High Chancellor, who finds himself compromised as he tries to maintain his power.
Although the play deals with the darkness of mental illness; Bennett’s witty, humorous and intelligent dialogue introduces a pleasing airiness.