Certain productions being re-shown during our continuing semi-lockdown are able to take on a new significance, and this is certainly the case with The Madness of King George. Originally written by Alan Bennett in 1991, and subsequently filmed to great acclaim; this revival was initially produced by the Nottingham Playhouse in 2018. A play set just after a loss of territory and influence, where both moral and physical sickness at the heart of British government threaten to wobble the established order – it’s almost a little too on the nose.
Much of this could have been said two years ago – but the sentiment of a country on the edge is even more biting now. When Amanda Handingue’s Charles Fox -the leader of the parliamentary opposition, played here in an energetically bolshy manner- declares “let this fart-ridden pox infested country sink into its sea of pus”, it’s a statement that one can imagine many sections of the current UK population using as a curse, on both sides of the political coin.
But although this is a play concerned with grand machinations, plans, and plotting, it is at its best as a very human drama. Namely the drama of one man and his descent into (and then temporary removal of) madness – or at least sickness; as the long considered the diagnosis of George III, porphyria has been thrown into doubt in recent years.
Long perceived as a cool and collected figure on screen, Mark Gatiss takes on the title role, and is masterful in what he draws from it. It’s a great thing, as a poor performance here would likely sink the whole production. He begins as a fastidious, pompous and pleasantly approachable character, overly concerned with the minutiae of how both his palace and his kingdom are run. This is swiftly done away with as a few stumbles and stutters lead into a heady mania where the King agitates, insults, swears and attempts to run riot with the honesty usually reserved for a court fool. The moments in which George III is lucid enough to realise that he is not well are excellently realised by Gatiss, and horrifying to watch because they are closest to the truth of what is happening – he is at his most heart-breaking when he howls with disgust at his own condition. This comes shortly before a forced separation from his tender and devoted queen (Debra Gillett), which seems to be carried out by his physicians for no other reason than that it will cause the couple pain – or, if not deliberately malevolent in intent, with no consideration given to the feelings of either.
The delicate daintiness of 18th century court life – conveyed by the set design of Robert Jones, and the exquisite prettiness of the musical score by Tom Gibbons – presents a horrible contrast with the further cruelty of the cures forced upon the body of the King – constant restraints, mouth gagged and weeping blisters deliberately left open on his bare scalp. Though the sickness of the King is shown to be a disaster for the system of government, it is also a visceral reminder of how far medicine has come in the last 300 years, and how brutal the practice has been (and can still be, in some circumstances). Even the most effective of the King’s doctors, the authority of bluntness that is Dr Willis (Adrian Scarborough) uses methods that are cruel and unsettling, stating that he will break the King “like a horse”. Gatiss’ physical tics, jerks and explosions are much less uncomfortable to watch than the ‘medicine’ inflicted against his person.
In the end, the coup of a potential regency is thwarted, as a semblance of health returns – and Gatiss becomes more knowing in his illness as it recedes, better able to manipulate his ability to say what would usually be unsaid. History tells us that in the end, this respite would be temporary and that the King would sink into his condition again. But within the world of the stage, order is restored – for a time at least.
The Madness of George III can be streamed on YouTube until 18th June here