Reviewed by Jude Hines
Written by one of Britain’s best known and revered playwrights, The Madness of George III tells the story of the King’s declining relationship with his eldest son, the foppish Prince of Wales (later George IV), particularly focusing on the period around the government’s Regency Crisis of 1788–89. It is a complex and challenging play that, at its best, embraces the style and language of the Regency era where extravagance in most matters, was the norm for what was then, arguably the world’s most powerful king. In 1994, the play was adapted and became the BAFTA Award-winning film, The Madness of King George starring Nigel Hawthorn, best known in his role as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister, and recognised as one of Britain’s most awarded actors.
Based on a true story, as the play opens, we learn that the king is ill. In fact, it is long held that he suffered from an hereditary disease called porphyria. The disease, not uncommon in the annals of the British royal family, manifests itself as either a distressing serious skin condition, or as in the case of George III, as a disease that typically causes nervous system symptoms, which appear quickly and can be severe. Symptoms include mental changes, such as anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, disorientation and paranoia and seizures, similar to epileptic fits. George’s extremely violent attacks led to him being labelled by doctors as ‘insane’, and fortunately for the play to ‘hold’, it is known that these attacks can last days to weeks and usually improve slowly after the attack.
Angela Short has assembled 20 players, some who perform several roles, and many have the challenge of role reversal, and this works well. Rose Vallen morphs into a seemingly endless number of characters with humour and ease and Rose Harvey, Jenny Allen and Leah Lowe all capture their male character roles convincingly. Tom Tassone, as The Prince of Wales is delightfully ‘foppish’ and is convincing as the ambitious hedonistic heir to the throne as is Leighton Vogt as beleaguered Prime Minister, William Pitt. Whilst not naming all of the players, their work is that of a convincing budding ensemble.
Featuring many of Adelaide’s well known and experienced actors, the play is yet to establish the consistency of accent and balance of performance that creates total believability and strong connection for the audience. Lindsay Dunn, as George seizes the opportunity that the writing offers for light and shade in the second half of the play, but I find his very Australian accent and lack of agitated energy and fury likely for a king in personal and political decline impacts on the believability of his ‘insanity’. Rather than using a fierce physical struggle to resist being restrained, the king politely submits to ministrations, gags, straps, straightjackets and medical quackery. We see little fury and much befuddlement.
The Doctor roles are pivotal, and Pete Davies as George Baker seizes every possible nuance and comedic gesture and opportunity, whilst Joshua Coldwell as Francis Willis brings gravitas, impeccable accent and strong stage presence to the role of the king’s final ‘saviour’.
The key women’s roles of Queen Charlotte, played effortlessly by Kate Anolak, and Lady Pembroke by Rebecca Kemp are scantily included in the script. These two actors look resplendent and seem to be ‘itching’ to use their talent to add more to this story.
Great care has been taken by the costume team and cast, and Anne-Louise Smith with wigs. Whilst there is a broad collection of looks suggested for the period, this works particularly well for the large number of simply, but aptly dressed women playing male staff and guard roles. Short has employed clever touches like hand held-masks to suggest multiple diverse members of parliament, and music is judiciously used to suggest pomp and ceremony. Richard Parkhill’s lighting, is largely used effectively, employing well-organised cast, to ensure that scene changes flow seamlessly. My disappointment in terms of production values, was with the set by Bob Peet. At the time, George was arguably the wealthiest, most powerful man in the western world, and whilst the set, creating three rooms and a forecourt area, works well for bed scenes, three meagre curtains are stretched across the openings, creating a ‘bargain basement’ look, rather than a sumptuous royal palace.
This play is a slice of history that allows audiences to see both the political machinations and personal challenges that monarchs faced from both without and within. Lovers of this era will undoubtedly enjoy the political byplay and the terrifying medical pronouncements and treatments of the time, and in this celebration year for Queen Elizabeth II, we can but hope that caring for the monarch in 2022 is somewhat more sympathetic and enlightened.