Mark Gatiss

The Madness of King George


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. 

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


Sherlock: The Abominable Bride


The recent small-screen success of the BBC television series, Sherlock has prompted its creators to try something a little different this time around; after successfully updating the concept, they’ve decided to present a standalone episode as a period piece and moreover, to simultaneously release The Abominable Bride in cinemas across the UK in a series of exclusive one-off screenings; all things, no doubt designed to generate excitement in the hearts and minds of its huge army of ardent followers.

The problem is, of course, we’re not quite sure how this switch in time has been achieved – (is it the result of one of Sherlock’s cocaine-adulterated dreams? Or are we simply inhabiting one of the scenarios dreamed up by Doctor Watson in his role as an author of detective fiction?) The fact that we’re never really sure is one of the blades that fatally stabs this enterprise, even as it sprints merrily out of the starting gate, but infinitely more worrying is the ensuing surfeit of intolerable smugness that seems to drip from every sly in-joke and ‘clever’ character interplay we’re presented with. Authors Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss seem to be hovering in the background, proudly announcing how very arch they’ve been with Conan Doyle’s legacy, but I have to confess that after careful viewing and much consideration, I’m still really not sure what was supposed to be happening in the story and can’t help feeling that the writers have been rather less clever than they suppose.

Anyway, the plot revolves around the case of Emilia Ricoletti (Emily O’ Keefe) dressed in a bridal gown, who appears in a public place, indiscriminately firing pistols at passers-by before committing an apparent suicide; only to reappear shortly afterwards, complete with a large hole in her head, to murder her husband. She then promptly disappears. Baffling? Well, yes. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman), go gamely into detection mode, but the eventual solution for the murder is so risible, it’s hard to believe that the authors thought it would pass muster as anything more than a joke. Blaming it on the Suffragettes? Oh, please… A late appearance by Professor Moriaty (Andrew Scott) at the Reichenbach Falls, has been crowbarred into the story with a total absence of subtlety, which just about puts the deerstalker hat on it.

Of course, Sherlock fans are usually a notoriously loyal regiment, so it must be extremely worrying for Moffat and Gatiss, that amidst the onslaught of social media pronouncements, posted shortly after transmission, only a very few scribes have arisen to defend this debacle and the ones that have, seem to be channelling a definite whiff of the Emperor’s New Clothes (take a bow Lucy Mangan of the Guardian). I’ll admit, I haven’t been a massive fan of the series before now, but this ‘event’ has pretty much put me off investigating further instalments. I’d have loved to have finished this review with the word ‘elementary,’ but sadly, that’s a quality that was missing here.

2 stars

Philip Caveney