The Madness of George III
Nottingham Playhouse; until 24 Nov
King George III is not mad, but he is ill. However, the porphyria from which he suffers has yet to be identified. Since its symptoms include mental disturbance, the king is declared mad by his doctors. Alan Bennett’s 1991 play (subsequently a film) uses this mismatch between appearance and reality to explore questions about the fragility of the human condition, the combativeness of government and the fallibilities of experts’ divergent opinions (doctors in particular).
In 1788 it is the king, as head of state, who appoints the prime minister. Pitt (Nicholas Bishop, aloof and restrained) is his man – a steady hand and a thrifty one. If the king is mad and declared unfit to rule, the Prince of Wales – his spendthrift, dandy son (Wilf Scolding, petulant vanity) – will be appointed prince regent and Pitt will be out. The prince’s man is Fox (Amanda Hadingue, exuberantly ambitious), promoting a government “prodigious in its expenditure”.
These political and personal conflicts resonate today. The beating heart of the drama, though, and of Adam Penford’s artful production, is the king’s own internal conflict. Here is a man who knows he is sane and who knows that his actions make him appear insane. Whether haughtily regal and mildly eccentric, or blubbering in his speech and wildly disordered in his movements,
Mark Gatiss (above) is sensational. Through him we feel George’s agonies of body and mind: a suppurating-skinned, sentient creature tortured by ill-judged “cures”; a king become a thing to his subjects. Restored, he reunites appearance and reality: the king is seen to be himself again through a pompfilled public ceremony.