In the introduction to the play’s text, Alan Bennett claimed that the eighteenth-century ‘was not an inspiring period’. Funnily enough, it is his own play that proves otherwise. The Madness of George III offers a delightful mix of witty political comedy
and poignant reflection on the issue of mental health that is still relevant to twentieth-century audiences.
The play recalls the events of one turbulent winter in British history, triggered by the titular character’s descent into madness. Set in a time where the monarch still held real political power, George III’s incapacity left the Tory government struggling against the Whig opposition, allied to the petulant Prince of Wales, both ‘perched in the rafters waiting to come in’. As far as a story arc goes, there was a lot to be inspired by – and this was only half a year’s worth of political business.
The antics of the Whigs and Tories will please fans of James Graham’s This House or The Thick of It, but it is the treatment of George III during his illness which forms the centerpiece of the play. Mark Gaitiss’s jovial and energetic portrayal of George III allowed for a less subtle transition of the character into his malady, but it is nonetheless harrowing to watch. More often than not, George’s ‘madness’ (variously diagnosed as a symptom porphyria or bipolar disorder) is used by writers as a comedic punchline befitting of a caricatured historical figure, but in this play the King emerged as the most humane. It is as Greville tells us, that ‘whatever his situation, His Majesty is but a man’. Written in the nineties, Bennett’s treatment of mental illness is far from perfect, but still better than some of the stuff we see today.
Set against a minimalist production design, each of the characters became truly memorable and engaging. The choice of gender-blind and colour-blind casting was well-executed, and it redressed the imbalances found in the source material (which is less a reflection of Bennett than of the nature of eighteenth-century political life). Creative license is always to be expected in historical fiction, but it is easily forgivable here because it’s precisely what makes the whole thing work in the first place. As Bennett said, it would have been better if the audience were given a history lecture before the curtain rises but through the witty dialogues the world of the eighteenth-century and its inhabitants has been masterfully brought to life.
As the King is blistered, purged, and straitjacketed by his physicians, we are reminded to be thankful for the more empathetic and informed understanding of mental illnesses which we have today. At a time where we are being more open about our mental health than ever, this production is a thoughtful and elegant addition to the conversation.
Photos: National Theatre