There’s a lovely moment towards the end of Nottingham Playhouse’s major revival of The Madness of George III in which Mark Gatiss’s recovering king co-opts a servant and the visiting Lord Chancellor Thurlow to read the reunion scene between Lear and Cordelia. It’s beautifully rendered, reducing David Hounslow’s treacherous Thurlow to tears, and manages to sell the old cliche of Shakespeare being used for scenes of recovery.
Yet while Lear is the play most explicitly evoked, The Madness of George III is structurally far closer to another Shakespeare play – The Taming of the Shrew. An individual is constructed as unfit for society through their behaviour, language and violent outbursts; a maverick outsider enters the scene to exclude the troublemaker from that society against their will. Through a combination of overt and covert abuse and dominance, the newcomer ‘reforms’ the outcast and returns them to society, apparently now conforming but with a question mark over the health of their relationship. And both plays pose the same problems to their would-be revivers – how to square the comedy and the abuse.
George III is a huge event for Nottingham Playhouse, with an unusually starry cast, the rare distinction of an NT Live broadcast from outside London, and the prestige of a rarely revived play. Artistic Director Adam Penford has pulled out the stops, leaning heavily into the royal spectacle: lavish costumes, an ingeniously folding set that bewigged servants continually rotate to create new rooms, and an attention to visual spectacle that climaxes with the devastating image of a screaming George, restrained in his new ‘throne’, being drawn upstage into blinding lights to the roar of ‘Zadok the Priest’. It’s a magnificent and harrowing image, accompanied by the thunderous remonstrances of the plain-speaking zealot Dr Willis (an excellent Adrian Scarborough), that perfectly captures and critiques the reversed power relations between king and subject.
Alan Bennett wrote the play at the height of the Rain Man/My Left Foot era of prestige dramas using physical and mental disability as a vehicle for bravura, inevitably award-winning, performances. And this is undeniably a vehicle for Gatiss, who is outstanding. His easy charisma and genial upper-class twittery make him a winning focus of audience sympathy from the start, and as his condition becomes more evident, Gatiss builds on his experience of playing grotesques to embody George’s suffering: his foot is twisted, his head jerks and tics, his words emerge painfully and unstoppably. While the scenes of overt torture are unpleasant to watch, it’s when Gatiss is battling himself that the production is at its most upsetting and unsettling.
But in an era which has seen so much backlash against variations on ‘cripping up’, there’s a conversation to have about whether ‘madness’, in the form imagined by this play, is still the right or even an ethical showcase vehicle for an actor’s craft. At the very least, the conversation is rightly shifting from how well an actor mimics the symptoms of a condition to what the performance tells us about that condition, and this is where the play shows its age. At times, the focus is on the social model of disability, as conniving politicians and family members are quick to segregate and medicalise the king as soon as he starts showing symptoms, with the future Prince Regent (an entertaining Wilf Scolding) hiding away the socially inconvenient for personal gain. At other times the focus is on the more explicit abuse of the vulnerable, aiming for horror and affect in scenes of restraint and blistering that are upsetting and place attention squarely on the body of the victim. Given the urgency of these issues in today’s society, whether in care home abuse or the ongoing crises in mental health support, I wish these had been the focus.
However, even as the play evokes these issues, the comedy pulls away from them, and the natural charisma of the cast – while making this a thoroughly enjoyable evening – only exacerbates that. The wonderfully drawn relationship between the King and ‘Mrs King’, down to their discussion of farting, roots the tone in domestic comedy; Adrian Scarborough’s abusive treatments are treated as tough love culminating in a mutually respectful alliance; and the comedy sexual harrassment subplot (complete with ‘pity we didn’t follow through, what what’ coda) is simply awful.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the narrative arc of the play is disappointingly undramatic. The King gets ill and (spoiler) gets better, and the push towards a happy ending leaves the madness seeming like a slightly embarrassing blip in the King’s life that left him with some funny anecdotes to tell. This is a fault of the play rather than the production, and Penford and the cast work hard to invest stakes in the myriad other stories, including the loyal servants who are dismissed and the lingering threat of the self-absorbed Prince of Wales, but the production finishes with plenty of style and little sense of consequence. It’s a splendidly produced, impeccably directed, and beautifully performed revival of a modern classic; but (as with Shrew) I’m looking forward to productions that hold the issues of this play more directly to account.
The Madness of George III is on at Nottingham Playhouse until 24th November. More info here.