Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Rory McGregor
Venue: Drama Barn
The best thing to do this weekend was to see The Madness of George III, directed by Rory McGregor. Everything just worked: the casting, the characterisation, the comic timing, the satisfyingly flamboyant costumes, the music (Handel), the stark lighting, the simple props, all in synchronic harmony, all without gimmicks. This was the Drama Barn at is finest.
Based on historical evidence, the play dramatises George III’s descent into insanity and recovery, and its effects on England’s political landscape. It’s not easy to put on – portraying madness on stage is a fiendish act – but McGregor and co-director Rosie Litterick allow the audience to feel as though we personally knew George, in his undergarments, losing it before our eyes. Special commendation goes out to Alex Wilson’s masterful performance as the feisty George III, alongside whom we felt the pain of reason’s slippage, of straightjackets, of blistering cups applied to the skin, and of loss.
The simple, somewhat Shakespearean set worked well, focusing the audience’s gaze on the cast. I particularly liked the throne’s use as an metaphor for the glosses and restraints of power, which transformed into a leather-strapped mad chair by whipping off the satin covering, to which George was repeatedly bound with convincing physicality.
These tragic proceedings only heightened the witty elements of Alan Bennett’s eye-wateringly clever script. It had that covetable quality of allowing the audience to forget they’re watching anything at all, because everything flows so effortlessly. The dialogue possessed a natural rhythm while simultaneously packed with metatextual humour. In one of the play’s shortest but most wonderful scenes, two equerries walk on, compare yesterday’s chamber pot to today’s, christen one “Piss the Elder” and the other “Piss the Younger” before exiting stage right. At other points, King George slings insults that would give Malcolm Tucker a run for his money. Did I detect a subtle Professor Hubert Farnsworth in “Good news!”?
The baddies were satisfyingly melodramatic. Whilst Hugh Laurie’s Prince of Wales in Blackadder III had the mental age of a 7 year old, Josh Welch’s effective enactment of the prodigal Beau, powdered nose aloft, was more like a thoroughly unpleasant toddler. Likewise, the three caricatured physicians (D’angelo, Spears, Wakelam), one of which was endlessly fascinated by the king’s stool (a latter day Gillian McKeith?), might have walked directly out of an Eighteenth-century political cartoon.
Goodie, Pitt, played by a stony Max Fitzroy-Stone, was particularly austere, in relishable counterpoint to the eccentric king. It’s hard to stop praising individual performances since, given the cast of 22 actors, it is remarkable that there were only a small handful of average actors among a sea of talent, and all were unmistakably enthusiastic. At risk over-eulogising, I would also mention the coy but desperate Elspeth Piggott (Queen Charlotte), and the commanding Joseph Williams (Dr Willis) for affecting supporting roles. It was clear that McGregor wanted the play to exist primarily through its actors, and it did so triumphantly.