The Madness of George III
directed by Alan Bennett
at the Colonial Theatre
through November 14
So much has been written about Alan Bennett's new play, The Madness of George III, that going to see it may almost seem redundant. Adding to the gallons of ink spent on both sides of the Atlantic praising Alan Bennett's writing and Nigel Hawthorne's performance as the title character would be tedious if the accolades were not so richly deserved. Everything you've heard is true--this is a phenomenal play and will probably never receive a performance as rich as the one it is now getting.
Bennett's play is Shakespearean in its scope and reach; A straightforward account of the king's descent into and recovery from madness becomes a political and social commentary through Bennett's devastating use of language: Doctors feud over whether blisters or induced vomiting is the most effective treatment, politicians conspire over the raving body of the king--the twenty odd characters in The Madness of George III are involved in so many different intrigues it's a wonder that the audience can see straight.
That they can, and that a play which often seems like a cross between King Lear and a Monty Python episode can somehow enmesh its audience emotionally is a tribute to the exceptional work of the Royal National Theatre's repertory company. The cast is exceptional and Bennett's play makes the most of it.
Nigel Hawthorne has received so much acclaim for his portrayal of George III that one expects a showy, scenery chewing performance--and, indeed, much of the role could lend itself to that. But Hawthorne is impressive precisely because he eschews that well-trod path toward theatrical legend in favor of a performance that actually convinces you that Bennett's conception of George III is plausible.
This is not always easy to do. In his moments of lucidity, Bennett's king embodies the "Farmer George" image. Plainspoken, fair and with a sense of humor (he calls the Queen "Mrs. King"), George III is nonetheless indisputably in charge. "I am the verb, sir, not the object," he tells a subject. But following the descent into madness, Hawthorne must spew the random gibberings of a man who has lost all control.
Hawthorne is particularly brilliant in the last half of the second act, when it slowly dawns on the main doctor treating him that George is recovering faster than he has been letting on. It is a tribute to Hawthorne's acting ability that the audience guesses this just far enough ahead of the doctor to marvel at the subtlety of Bennett's language. This revelation that there are levels to his madness makes one of George's remarks all the more affecting. When someone comments that the King seems more like himself, George replies:
"I've always been myself--even when I was ill. Now I seem myself. that's the important thing. I have remembered how to seem..."
No less an impressive performance is given by Julian Wadham as William Pitt, George III's prime minister. More than any other actor in this production, Wadham actually seems to be inhabiting the late 18th century. Standing silently, formal and withdrawn, Wadham seems to have stepped down from one of the famous paintings of Pitt.
It is a performance all the more extraordinary when one realizes that Wadham is given none of the clever lines or emotional speeches that the other characters receive. The only thing Pitt is passionate about is cutting waste--at times he almost sounds like Al Gore in his plea for efficiency. Yet Pitt, for all his faults, is one of the more sympathetic characters in the play. Incessantly goaded about his loss of America and his father's own descent into madness, Pitt retreats further and further into himself, carrying the audience with him. When George III returns to sanity, the corresponding success of Pitt is one of the reasons the audience cheers.
This is the sort of cast where even the footmen are brilliant and the sort of play that rewards such casting by dishing out juicy scenes and hysterical lines to even the most minor characters. One such minor character is the Duke of York (the younger son of George III), played by Julian Rhind-Tutt. With few lines, Rhind-Tutt turns his vacuous twit character into a running gag that grows funnier with each repetition.
In the larger role of his brother, the Prince of Wales, Nick Sampson plays the pampered slug of an heir to perfection. The Prince can't wait to throw his dad into the madhouse and declare himself Regent. Anticipating this eventuality, he declares, "from now on, style is going to be everything."
In contrast to the Prince's decadence stands Dr. Willis, the commoner dispatched from Lincolnshire to cure the King. Clive Merrison does a good job of portraying Willis' frustration with and isolation from his aristocratic surroundings. (As the king is recovering, an appalled equerry asks Willis why he has George reading "King Lear" Willis replies tersely, "I didn't know what it was about") But Bennett has no intention of making Willis any more sympathetic than his aristocratic counterparts and Merrison aptly conveys Willis' despotic side.
The Madness of George III is beautifully designed by Mark Thompson. The play begins and ends as characters descend and ascend a vast staircase extending the length of the stage. The drops and set pieces that frame the rest of the scenes are simple and allow the elaborate costumes and props to stand out as the accentuating touches.
Nicholas Hytner's direction takes good advantage of the ever changing stage size--switching from scenes so private audience members almost feel like eavesdroppers to grand processions of servants carrying elaborate boxes.
Hytner is also careful not to let the size of the production get away from him. He stages several Parliament scenes by having the appropriate politician simply walk in front of whatever set happens to be on stage and deliver his speech in a follow spot with audio sound effects giving the chamber's reactions. This not only simplifies set changes considerably, it also underscores the isolation that the politicians, particularly Pitt, feel.
Such is the collective genius of Bennett and the Royal National Theatre that by the end of The Madness of George III the audience at the Colonial Theater in Boston was actually rooting for a man who, little more than two hundred years ago, was burned in effigy across the street in the Commons.