When Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III premiered at the National Theatre in 1991, the writer, it seems hard to imagine now, was considered more an actor-comedian and TV playwright than a stage dramatist. In the previous decade, Enjoy had flopped horribly in the West End (it subsequently seems more interesting as one of the first plays to feature a transgender character), and Kafka’s Dick had a short run at the Royal Court. Even the better-liked A Question of Attribution (1988), an Anthony Blunt bio-drama that became the first UK stage play to depict Queen Elizabeth II, confirmed for some, by being rapidly shown on the BBC, that telly was his prime territory.
However, by next turning, in The Madness of George III, to one of the Queen’s ancestors and the period of mental incapacity that led to parliamentary steps towards deposition, Bennett was for the first time accepted as an equal as well as a contemporary of Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn. Mark Gatiss, succeeding to a role created by Nigel Hawthorne, portrays a story that Nottingham Playhouse-goers will know as a theatre hit, an exam set-text, or an Oscar-winning movie adaptation.
It’s clear in Adam Penford’s lavish revival that this play took Bennett to a new level as a stage writer. It includes ingenious use of a catchphrase – the presence or absence of the king’s verbal tic – “What? What?” – indicates his state of mind, and a brilliant scene in which George’s performance of the “mad scene” from King Lear signals, counterintuitively, his mental restoration.
Hawthorne went on to play Lear, which Gatiss may not, but the latter’s portrayal of the king’s physical pain, intellectual confusion and verbal disinhibition are, in the best way, almost impossible to watch, his shaved head underlining the bare, forked animal that the king is beneath his crown or powdered wig. Adrian Scarborough is darkly commanding as Dr Willis, a pioneering Lincolnshire medic who treasonously suggests that the king can only recover by becoming his doctor’s subject.
The play was written to be performed by 22 men and three women, but this production gives male roles to actresses. This approach often works well in Shakespeare, perhaps because the plays were written for men only. Yet one of the points of Bennett’s play is that, in 18th-century politics and royalty, a woman could only advance through accident of birth (being a princess) or sex (becoming a prince’s wife or mistress).
As the equerry Captain Fitzroy, Nadia Albina conveys a gamine ambiguity that is perfectly plausible in a chap of the royal household. But for all the efforts of Amanda Hadingue as the Whig leader Charles James Fox, there is a sense of necessity casting in a girls’ school play. Directors need to think hard about when to expect the audience not to notice who’s who.
When first seen, The Madness of George III was felt to be an enjoyable history lesson that lacked wider resonance; even Bennett, in his preface to the text, fretted about the difficulty “extracting a message from the play”. The storyline, though, was prophetically topical. Soon afterwards, the former US president Ronald Reagan revealed a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, which, some observers retrospectively believed, affected him in office. François Mitterrand, it also turned out, had been terminally ill during much of his time as French president, with the Élysée Palace releasing false medical bulletins, as Windsor Castle did about George III. We learn ever more about the concealment of Winston Churchill’s infirmities.
The justification for such subterfuge has been the desire of voters for leaders to seem superhuman. And although these days commentators speculate freely about whether Donald Trump is insane, or if Theresa May’s type 1 diabetes might affect her stamina, The Madness of George III now partly seems a play about information management by the state, which, as the intrigue involves keeping a vulnerable government in power, also has a relevance to Brexit. Like Bennett as a playwright, the play has deepened with time.
The Madness of George III
This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history