Long before the Royal retinue took up residence at the West End’s Apollo Theatre, it might have been possible to hear a distant echo of standing ovations from Bath, where David Haig was reported to be giving the performance of his career as Alan Bennett’s mad George III. As such there was always going to be scope for disappointment, in much the same way that Christmas is never quite as glorious as it appears on the other 364 days of the year. But from the moment Haig took to the stage there was no doubt about it: the evening would end with the audience on its feet.
Written twenty years ago, and brought to the screen with Nigel Hawthorne in the title role, the play depicts a brief period in George’s reign, when his first bout of insanity cast Parliament into a ferment of unease. Pitt the Younger’s hold on Parliament is threatened by the powerful Whig faction, whose Royal champion, the obnoxiously plump Prince of Wales, eyes his father’s crown with as much ardour as if it had been a cream cake. Should the King become incapable of putting his signature to Pitt’s policies (many of which, much to the delight of an audience tightening its belts, are austerity measures), and ‘Prinny’ take his place as Regent, Parliament would turn to the Whigs.
Alongside the play’s wry political commentary is an examination of that tenuous division between mind and body. George’s madness is first signalled not by the incoherent gabble that later clouds his speech, but by a spectacular bout of flatulence and stomach pain. The treatments he is subjected to amount to little more than torture, and are depicted as such – there are scenes so pitiful they are almost impossible to watch. His eventual recovery might indeed be owing to the harsh measures of parson-Doctor Willis, but might not. We are left ill-at-ease: if his mind and body failed, so abruptly and without apparent cause, might not ours, too?
Haig’s King George is a choleric, shrewd and rather mischievous man, devoted to his wife (“Good night, Mrs King!”), and relishing all the little ceremonies of his position. Bennett’s triumph is to make him above all things likeable, so that when ‘the fog’ begins to cloud what is plainly a sharp and witty intelligence, we do not observe the fall of a king, but the altogether more piteous breaking-apart of a fellow human being. Haig seizes upon the play’s rich potential for comedy and pathos with an authority that is nothing short of extraordinary: every word and gesture is giving its own particular weight and meaning, and his delivery has the range and complexity of a musical instrument.
The large cast is uniformly competent, with particularly toothsome performances from Clive Francis as Dr Willis, and Christopher Keegan as the Prince of Wales. The latter sports a vast periwig that resembles a fat lamb strapped to his forehead, and trots across the stage on buckled heels, looking considerably more insane than his father, with considerably less cause. There are moments when even in his ravings the King displays a keener intelligence than that of his son, inviting that endless and never-to-be-resolved debate as to who can say what is mad, and what is not. Beatie Edney as Queen Charlotte is perhaps a little shadowed by the spectre of Blackadder’s Queenie, but it is moving to witness her despair at her beloved husband’s betrayal, as his madness gives rein to long-suppressed urges towards infidelity.
There is always, too, the spectre of King Lear – but if Bennett was sailing a little too close to the wind by bringing that spectre very nearly onstage, the wit and dexterity of Haig and Francis, reading together from leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare, make for one of the play’s most poignant and funny scenes.
But it is always to Haig that the eye turns: his effect on the audience is as compelling and inexorable as that of a magnet on iron filings. It is simply impossible to look elsewhere, or to resist the heartbreaking majesty of his performance – it is the finest I have seen in ten years, and I doubt I shall ever see finer.