Review: The Madness of George III, National Theatre Live

Liza Dezfouli

Mark Gatiss deserves all the praise for his role as King George III.
Review: The Madness of George III, National Theatre Live

The Madness of George III by English playwright Alan Bennett (The History BoysThe Lady in the Van), premiered in 1991 and was then made into a BAFTA Award-winning film starring Nigel Hawthorne.

The story of the Regency crisis of 1788-89, The Madness of George III is here revived by the Nottingham Theatre and brought to us by National Theatre Live. Directed by Adam Penford, the production is a triumph, particularly for Mark Gatiss in the lead; he brings to the stage astonishing range and power.

It’s 1788 and King George III suffers from porphyria, an inherited genetic condition which affects the skin and the nervous system, and which brings about disordered thinking and behaviours. It appears the king might be going mad. Bennett has him undergoing a mental breakdown, with the loss of America playing heavily on his mind. Not only is the health of the monarch precarious but that of the nation: if George III is declared unfit to rule, the dissolute and profligate Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding) will assume the throne. The present Prime Minister, the frugal and sensible Pitt (Nicholas Bishop), will be the first to go. Disaster looms.

The Crown Prince is conspiring with the medical team of court doctors to bring about the King’s downfall by employing increasingly barbaric treatments and separating him from his loving Queen, Charlotte (Debra Gillett).

One of the symptoms of porphyria is acute sensitivity and blistering of the skin, and the torments of George when he endures the tortures of being cupped are hard to take. You curl up in your seat. Adrian Scarborough plays the tough-loving but honest Dr Wills who – unimpressed by the king’s status and believing that George is suffering from having been over-indulged – is determined to bring about a cure by breaking the man like a horse. The scenes with these two are magnificent; two powerful actors at their best.

The production is cast genderblind as there are only two female roles, the Queen and Lady Elizabeth (Sara Powell). Amanda Hadingue is a stand-out, playing the Prince’s man, Fox, and one of the court doctors.

The play widens and contracts from scene to scene, zooming in to excruciatingly intimate scenes of the king’s mental anguish, or of loving companionship with his wife, then rapidly zooming out again in to portray the life of court and politics. The set by Robert Jones is all angles and decorated panes, referencing the rigid formality of courtly life. Against this, Gatiss delivers a heroic performance; the King’s disintegration is accompanied by a playful and knowing self-awareness, and the audience is privy to it all.

Practically every National Theatre Live offering is a treat. The Madness of George III is an example of the very best of British theatre. Nothing not to rave about.

Five stars: ★★★★★

National Theatre Live presents
The Madness of George III
By Alan Bennett
Directed by Adam Penford
Director for Screen: Matt Woodward
Cast includes Mark Gatiss and Adrian Scarborough

Screening in selected cinemas on 15 December: see www.sharmillfilms.com.au for details.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Liza Dezfouli has been reviewing film, live performance, books and occasionally music for over a decade. She writes a blog under her own name and another, somewhat less-measured one called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She creates work for the stage herself every now and then and can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: www.lizadezfouli.com.