Reviewed by Tomas Filsell
Compared with the immortalised Henries and Richards, who owe
their reputations largely to Avon’s Bard, George III is perhaps a lesser known
and appreciated King of Britain, but one no less fascinating, nor is his reign less
significant, which is probably why Alan Bennett decided to write a play about
George III began his nearly 60 year reign as King of Great Britain
in 1760 at the tender age of 22, maintaining his rule throughout major
historical events including the union of the two kingdoms of Great Britain and
Ireland in 1801, victories over France in the Seven Year’s War and Napoleon at
the Battle of Waterloo, the abolition of the slave trade within the British
Empire, and the loss of the British colonialists against the newly organised revolutionaries
in the American War for Independence, until his death in 1820, at 81 years of
Bennet’s play is set in 1788, just before the French revolution
and Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to colonial prominence, and just after the
British lost the American Revolutionary war, a recurring motif brought up in
conversation to The King’s displeasure, and a possible source of his mental urtication
which accompanied the physical he endured due to an unknown, and at the time very
poorly understood, medical condition.
In George III’s time, medical science was grimly atavistic by
today’s standards, and the mental illness from which The King suffered in bouts
throughout his adult life went undiagnosed, though the modern consensus based
upon records of The King’s life and symptomology is that he most likely
suffered from porphyria, a painful liver disorder, or bipolar disorder.
And suffer he did. The primary human concern of the play is King
George’s torment at the hands of his misunderstood disease and his misanthropic
‘quack’ doctors who subject him to caustic poultices, emetics, restraints, bloodletting,
and blistering among other physical and psychological tortures, in their
mistaken ‘best attempts’ at healing the ailing monarch of his malady. Other significant
concerns in the play include an internal threat to his long, fidelitous
relationship with his German-born wife Queen Charlotte, and a filial rift
exacerbated by the jockeying of political parties on either side of the aisle
in the Isles.
A sad fact of human history is the misapprehension and
misappreciation of mental disorders and their being conflated with physical diseases
to the stultification of scientific progress and the mortification of many mistreated
sufferers, which this play displays viscerally at times, forcing one, despite
Covid 19 and the lingering sense of despair it has left in its dismal wake, to
reflect upon the progress we’ve made and today enjoy in particularly the
treatment of medical and mental disorders both by professionals and among the broader
swathe of polite society.
Coming weeks after Mental Health Awareness Month in the US,
this production of The Madness of George III is an apposite reminder of the importance
of taking one’s mental health seriously, in this case it could have destroyed a
Kingdom, of normalising psychological difficulties, and of treating people as
human beings, mental or medical symptoms aside, deserving of the level of respect
due even a King.
Director Angela Short and her production crew have performed
a Herculean labour in wrangling a cast of no less than 20 individual performers
into the telling of this interesting historically based story, and their
efforts paid off in some particulars more than others.
If this production were a precious gem, truth be told, it were
a flawed one, for alongside the shining aspects it undoubtedly possesses are
others in need of polish, imperfections, and dull spots.
In order to bring to life an alien part of the world from an
unfamiliar time era, substantial research must go into the setting and character
details of that time and place. Thankfully, Short has the British heritage capable
of lending her interpretation of late 18th century England added
legitimacy. However, if research of the kind suggested here was done, it was
not borne out in the play anywhere other than in the costuming, which was
sumptuous, period appropriate, and a highlight of the production. Kudos to the team
for all that, and with a cast of 20 to manage, including multiple changes to
their hair, makeup, and costuming throughout, indeed there was a lot to do as
far as it’s concerned.
Whilst at times funny, poignant, and spectacular in the true
sense of the word, ultimately this production of The Madness of George III
lacked the consistency and detail needed for to instantiate 18th
century Britain and for the production to be maximally effective and considered
The affectations, style, and mannerisms of the actors lacked
cohesion and consistency. Obviously, it is difficult for a predominantly Australian
cast to fully embody British folk of the 18th century lacking the
same education a British cast would have received concerning their nation’s history,
and the lifetime’s exposure to modern versions of the people they are tasked to
portray, but certainly this show would benefit from some stronger
characterisation guidelines and deeper, firmer foundations in historical
research, which together would have united a cast of so many toward the goal of
telling their truth-based story. Interpretations of ‘18th century British
person’ varied, and this variation was a barrier to the story’s conveying and
the audience’s comprehension.
The truth about George III during his life, particularly his
reign as King and throughout his acute bouts of mental illness, is highly intriguing,
the period in which the play is set full of historical curiosities and the play
itself full of piquant historical references, unfortunately, however, you are
unlikely to fully appreciate such easter eggs unless you have a certain degree
of background knowledge of such things before going to see the show.
The great success of professional productions of this play
in the UK and US must largely be owing to the fact that its dialogue and action
so closely refers to the people from those nations and to events they have
grown up learning about. Australian audiences don’t have the same heritage, nor
appreciation for the play without prior knowledge of the history or effort on
their part to learn about it, as exemplified by questions from audience members
like ‘what was (the play) about?’
The King himself is played by one of the most likeable and experienced
character actors in Adelaide community theatre. Lindsay Dunn wrings sympathy
from George III in a pained performance. But whilst a sympathetic, likeable,
and at times affective King, Dunn’s was not perhaps the most convincing one.
A small amount of background research into porphyria,
bipolar disorders type I and II, and King George III’s actual recorded symptoms
would have removed a distracting element from Dunn’s performance – violent, Parkinson’s-like
shaking, which is not a symptom of either disorder, nor one George presented according
to documentation from his time. Dunn spent a lot of energy really experiencing King
George’s pain throughout his performance, which is a sign of a highly dedicated
and emotionally talented performer, however, this was a case of too much energy
spent shaking and writing to the extent that comprehension and projection was
compromised, along with other elements of the King’s characterisation including
his accent, mannerisms, and style, particularly during those truly awful treatment
scenes which had the potential to elevate sympathy into something even greater.
The performance highlight was due to Tom Tassone, a true
standout, who brought to life a vain, frivolous, irresolute Prince of Wales, at
(largely fictional) political war with his father during his convalescence.
Hilarious, bombastic, utterly unconceited performance from Tassone. Well done.
Other notable performances were given by Joshua Coldwell, who
played a charming and effective Dr Willis, Kate Anolak as the very
understanding Germanic Queen Charlotte, the three King’s torturers/physicians, beginning
with Peter Davies as the very funny Sir George Baker, Anthony Vawser as the frightening
Dr Richard Warren, and finally Maxwell Whigham who played a concerningly coprophilic
Sir Lucas Pepys as well as a very well differentiated Scottish parliamentarian,
Henry Dundas, Jamie Wright as the Prince’s
dim-witted and cheery brother Frederick, and Leah Lowe who managed to bring
much life and dignity out of the small character role she played as Robert
Ultimately, this is a fine production, but the multiplicity of
performance styles, varying levels of audio projection and ostensible lack of
attention to historical detail about the lives of the characters, and
unification and cohesion based upon such details diminished its overall effectiveness.
Numerous anachronisms in performance meant that the story was less effectively told,
and an important message about the treatment of vulnerable human beings and the
interpretation of mental health issues will perhaps only resonate with those
who are really trying hard to hear it.
Extensive historical and anthropological research, and
perhaps an extended rehearsal period or contact hours allowing for increased
and augmented communication between director and cast and cast and cast might
have refined this gem from a flawed into a perfect one.