Sunday, February 05, 2012

Theatre Review : The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett - Apollo Theatre (dir Christopher Luscombe 26/1/12)

King George III, one of the more decent monarchs to have graced the British throne, was unfortunate to suffer from a recurring illness - probably porphyria - which manifested itself in prolonged outbursts of what appeared to be madness. Alan Bennett's play studies the impact on the King of the first such outbreak, the barbaric methods used to try to cure it and how it affected the court politics of the day. Being written by Alan Bennett, it is a story told with humour, pathos and sensitivity, but also hard-edged and shocking.

Of course, most people are familiar with this story today, largely as a result of the success of this play when it was first staged.There is a risk in reviving such a well-loved work, which has successfully made the transition into an equally well-loved film with a much-missed national treasure in the title role. The lead part is so pivotal that comparisons with Nigel Hawthorne are unavoidable - yet such is the power of David Haig's performance as George III that within a few minutes I was totally involved in his performance and not attempting to make any comparisons.

I was once in a restaurant before a show and David Haig was eating with some companions on a table nearby, and he is one of these people whose charisma fills the room. Yet in many of the roles in which I have seen at the theatre or on television, he has played characters who are either bumptious and officious, or downtrodden. This may be testament to his acting ability, but neither types really allow his natural charisma to shine through.

This role, however, has put that right. Haig dominates the stage as a monarch should, even one beset by this dreadful malady, which makes his suffering as he loses his reason and is beset by blistering and binding by his doctors all the more poignant. He is well-supported by the large cast, especially Beatie Edney in the unattractive role of the monarch's plain but much-loved wife, Queen Charlotte and by Clive Francis as Dr Francis Willis.

The play itself looks a bit baggy in places. There is too much of Fox and Pitt and the machinations of the would-be Prince Regent, too much history lesson and not enough characterisation of the lesser roles. Parallels with contemporary politics are spurious and forced. But this is all about one man,  and the play comes alive when contemplating the true nature of kinghood, born to the purple, right down to his porphyria-stained urine.

No comments: