Don’t mention the war (of independence): The Madness of George III at the Apollo Theatre

Friday 27th January 2012

Poor old George III.  Unjustly blamed by the Americans for being a tyrannical monarch; succeeded by a son who became famous for popularising trousers; and what do we remember him for?  Going completely insane.   No wonder Alan Bennett, that champion of the underdog, was drawn to the irony of his story.

According to the Wellcome Library, Michael Neve, who was involved in researching the origins of the King’s madness, suggested that it would be a good subject for a play, and clearly he piqued Bennett’s curiosity.  In his most recent prose work ‘Untold Stories’, he also touches on mental illness in his own family.

On the face of it, this topic seems a perfect one for drama.  Bennett gives us an unflinching portrayal of madness from a time when attitudes and treatments were very different, and brings home the reality of what it might have been like for ‘mad King George’, whose son had to be his Regent for ten years until his death.  It also gives him a chance to explore the state of the monarchy at the time – a time when Parliament was becoming more powerful, but the indisposition of the monarch could still cause a political crisis.

The end result, though, seems curiously undramatic.  The stakes don’t seem high enough  – although the Prince Regent is portrayed as a less than serious successor, we don’t really hear enough about the politics to feel that it matters too much which side wins.  The play is more concerned with the personal fate of the King, although even he seems only slightly more miserable when he is mad than when he is sane.  It was Bennett who coined the phrase ‘History is just one f***ing thing after another’ in ‘The History Boys’, and in this play we get a sense of an inevitable sequence of events, as the monarch loses his grip on the crown just as the monarchy is becoming an irrelevance.  Even the ‘happy’ ending is sad – the King recovers, but as he does so, his humanity is diminished as he ensures all staff who saw him ‘in his small clothes’ are sacked and it is clear he hopes this episode is to be wiped out of history.  Of course, we now know that this was just the first of many episodes of mental illness that was to become permanent.  So, it is hard to believe that the ‘Mail on Sunday’ described this play as ‘Alan Bennett’s smash-hit comedy’.  It feels more like a beautifully written elegy for this period of history.

Our main reason for going was the chance to see David Haig take on this mammoth role.  A master at combining humorous exasperation and pathos, he seemed the ideal candidate, and he doesn’t disappoint.  Haig brings depth to the character and plays brilliantly with the contradictions of being a King who is unable to govern his own emotions.  The psychological pain of being fully aware of his infirmity whilst helpless to do anything about it is tangible.  As he skillfully and convincingly takes us through the transformation from stuffy monarch to raving lunatic, we can sense the physical exhaustion which ensues from his endless struggles and involuntary ranting sessions.  Although we would not call this play a ‘comedy’, there are some wonderful moments of humour, not least in the scenes where George is discovered acting out scenes from King Lear, enlisting the Lord Chamberlain’s help to play Cordelia.  With such a powerful central performance, has this production turned a lightweight satire into a Shakespearean tragedy?  In an interview for the BBC, Haig suggests that there is a parallel with Shakespeare, and talking to recently, he expressed an interest in playing King Lear himself one day.  If this performance is anything to go by, we’re in.

Although Haig has solid support from the large cast, particularly Beattie Edney as the Queen, and Clive Francis as the Doctor who claims to have cured him, this is really his play.   Even the minimal set, with its schematic moveable walls, seems to bow to him.

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