A king losing his sanity and a conspiracy from his offspring to take over the throne, we’ve heard this before, haven’t we? The National’s new production of Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of King George III” was broadcast to cinemas the other night, and were it not set a couple of hundred years after Shakespeare’s death you could well believe this was one of his plays, but the question of whether it stands up in a live performance, or will be remembered in the years to come, remains to be seen.
The play follows his majesty (played by Mark Gatiss) as he descends from mere eccentricity into utter madness, undergoes torturous treatment from increasingly useless physicians, and the ripples it creates in parliament and his family. There is some horror in watching Gatiss having his head “boiled” in the name of letting the poison of his mind seep out through the sores, but there is also the kind of witty dialogue you expect from Bennett. Individually the scenes are enjoyable and there are a few gems in the dialogue (you can practically sense the smugness when a couple of servicemen compare two of the king's urine samples, “piss the elder, piss the younger”), but together they don’t add up to a consistent tone. It’s too dark for a comedy but doesn’t have the gravitas for a tragedy.
The production itself is, surprisingly, unremarkable. The set, which folds and spins with each new room like a book, initially strikes the audience as especially clever, but given most of the set looks somewhat the same it begins to seem like an unnecessary frill. The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Gatiss himself is perfectly cast and masters the subtle twitches that come to contort his every movement, but then some performances are performed so over the top you really have to question what kind of tone director Adam Penford was trying to achieve. While the choice to have several male roles played by women works (a feature which is admirably not commented on) works for the most part (Nadia Albina is wonderful as Fitzroy), Amanda Hadingue’s hyper-masculine performance as Fox and Stephanie Jacob’s excessively foolish Doctor Baker prove more distracting than amusing.
That’s not to say there isn’t enjoyment to be found in “The Madness of King George III”; fans of Bennett’s writing will not be disappointed, but sadly it adds up to being a poor man’s “King Lear” (there is even a scene in which the recovering king and one of his servicemen act Cordelia and Lear’s final reunion for their own amusement). As a kind of faux-Shakespeare it is adequately entertaining, but it certainly isn’t a crowning achievement. Three stars.