Reviewed by Barry Lenny
The Adelaide Repertory Theatre Society is presenting Alan Bennett’s 1991 fictionalised biography, The Madness of George III, under the direction of Angela Short. There is, of course, a strong dramatic focus in the work but, being Bennet, there is plenty of wit and humour, too. Short brings out those two sides to the script. If there is a criticism, it is that there is a static feel to many scenes, with attendants simply standing around without moving or reacting to events and conversations.
It focuses on a brief part of the monarch’s life. By the time his insanity began to afflict him, he had been married to Queen Charlotte for many years and they had had fifteen children. His son George, the Prince of Wales, is overly eager to step into his father’s shoes, and there is a great deal of friction between them. The play takes us from the early onset of his illness, at the time of the Regency Crisis of 1788-89, up to the point in May 1811 when he showed signs of a recovery and returned to continue ruling. The play ends there, but, by the end of the year, his illness had returned permanently and, eventually blind and deaf, he was secluded in Windsor Castle until his death at the age of 81 in 1820. His son George finally got his wish and became Prince Regent in 1811.
George was, among other things, the last king of America, the Declaration of Independence ending that relationship. Aside from the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the American Revolution (1775-1783), he also reigned through the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the Irish Rebellion (1798), and the French Revolution (1783-1815).
Lindsay Dunn, as King George, only seems to leave the stage long enough for his many costume changes in an enormously demanding role. This is one of those roles that an actor lives for, offering the opportunity to draw on every bit of their talent and experience, and Dunn makes the most of each moment. He is the solid hub of this production.
Kate Anolak is a loving, devoted Queen Charlotte, standing with him and supporting him. Anolak creates a warm and gentle queen, doing all that she can to help her husband when he needs her most.
Rebecca Kemp is Lady Elizabeth Pembroke, the Queen’s Lady of the Bedchamber, to be more specific, Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. The king had long been attracted to her and, during his insanity, she is subjected to his unwanted advances. Kemp creates a character who carries herself with dignity and demonstrates loyalty to both the queen and king.
Tom Tassone portrays George, Prince of Wales, wonderful as the indolent, self-indulgent, Regency fop.
Jamie Wright, as the ‘thick as a brick’ Duke of York, who appears to have modelled his character on Hugh Laurie’s George, the Prince Regent, in Blackadder the Third, gets a good share of laughter.
Four doctors attend George and their attempts to cure him display the enormous ignorance exhibited by the medical profession at that time of the workings of the human body, even more so, the brain. Their treatments are not far from mediæval torture and really are ‘kill or cure’. Treatments at that time were far more likely to make patients worse, or kill them, than their illnesses were. Humorous as they might be now, many of the audience were clearly unaware of the state of medicine in the Regency period, and shocked by the brutality. Let’s not forget, though, that it was not that long ago that people were locked up for the rest of their lives in horrific conditions in places such as Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital), not ending until the start of the 20th Century, and full frontal lobotomies continued well into the 20th Century, the last in America in 1967, and the patient died from it. Many of the treatments that were administered in Bedlam are inflicted on the king in this play.
Joshua Coldwell, Peter Davies, Anthony Vawser, and Maxwell Whigham play the physicians, Dr. Francis Willis, Sir George Baker, Dr. Richard Warren, and Sir Lucas Pepys. Together, they bring a great deal of black humour to their conflicting views on how to diagnose the king’s illness, and how to treat it, subjecting him to all of their treatments at the same time.
Aside from the king’s illness, and the attempts to control and cure him, there are sub-stories.
At the time of his failing health, there is the state of parliament to be taken into account. Royalty was not as distanced from politics as it is today. Although his father was a Whig, the current Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, is a Tory. Favoured by the king, that assures the Tories of votes from citizens who love their monarch. The Prince of Wales, however, supports the Whigs, led by Charles Fox, who, in return, support him to replace his ailing father as ruler. There is a serious threat to the Tory majority, thwarted only by the king’s recovery. The conflict between Pitt and Fox, played by Leighton Vogt and Steve Marvanek, allows them plenty of opportunities to shine.
There are many more in the cast, too many to mention individually, each contributing to the whole, some playing multiple roles, and women playing male roles, in order to cover all of the many characters. Although only a minor role, Jenny Allard garners plenty of laughs, without uttering a single word, as the vacuous, chinless wonder, Mr. Ramsden Scrymshir. She shows how much can be done with a part that simply asks an actor to walk on, stand for a few moments, and walk off again.
There is an impressive array of costumes by Angela Short, Emily Currie, and Kate Anolak, wigs by Anne-Louise Smith, and, once again, Richard Parkhill’s lighting adds a great deal to Bob Peet’s very workable and stylish set. The music of Georg Friedrich Handel, the king’s favourite composer, is an added bonus.
Don’t wait until the last minute to book. You won’t want to miss this one.