National Theatre Live
This adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed 1991 play, a co-production between The National Theatre and the Nottingham Playhouse, stars Mark Gatiss as George III, the much-loved and admired monarch whose reign was nearly destroyed by a protracted battle with mental illness. We now know that George suffered from porphyria, a condition that comes with a whole raft of punishing symptoms – and it’s clear from the outset that the illness itself is worsened by the ill-informed efforts of the court physicians, who set about inflicting a whole series of what can only be described as tortures on the luckless monarch. They bleed him, they ply him with laxatives, they even spill boiling hot wax onto his head and back, convinced that these remedies will drive out his ‘ill humours.’ Little wonder, then, that their efforts are instrumental in pushing the king deeper into delirium. Bennett’s script walks a perilous tightrope between hilarity and the full blown tragedy of watching a man degraded and humbled in front of his family and his courtiers.
It’s only when Prime Minister William Pitt (Nicholas Bishop) engages the services of Doctor Willis (Adrian Scarborough) that a possible light appears on the horizon. Willis’s approach to the problem is a tough, rigorous routine that seems more appropriate to the breaking of a horse than the nurturing of a stricken human being but, against all the odds, it starts to pay dividends.
Meanwhile, the Whigs see the king’s situation as an opportunity to oust Pitt’s Tories by allying themselves to the ambitious Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding), who longs for some kind of power and doesn’t mind how he gets it.
This is a handsomely mounted production, which takes off at a gallop and never allows the pace to flag. Each scene segues effortlessly to the next and there’s solid work from the supporting cast, but this is essentially an opportunity for Gatiss to shine and he rises to the challenge with considerable aplomb, managing to bring out George’s innate likeability even as he is reduced to a gibbering, gesticulating wreck by his steadily mounting symptoms.
This is an object lesson in how to present a period piece. Everything here – the costumes, the sets, the actors’ comic timing, the machinations of the various political players, is presented with absolute authority and skilfully directed by Adam Penford.
It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction and The Madness of King George seems to illustrate this point perfectly.