Many people probably now know England’s “mad” monarch best as the smilingly sardonic king in Hamilton, singing pop ditties as he loses his grip on colonial America. But before that – back in 1991, in fact – George III made a notable stage appearance in this drama by Alan Bennett. The play began its life at the National Theatre, in a production by Nicholas Hytner, featuring a much-admired performance by Nigel Hawthorne that was to be reprised in Hytner’s film version. In 2012 David Haig starred in a successful revival. And now Mark Gatiss – of the comic collective The League of Gentleman and TV’s Sherlock, alongside a growing roster of serious theatre roles – gets strapped into the torture chair. Bennett’s play is a distressing watch. The terrible cruelties and indignities inflicted on George in the name of treatment, not to mention the physical and mental agonies of his condition itself, are horrible to witness. And Gatiss makes the transformation from the playful, twinkly, lively minded ruler to trembling, subjugated, traumatised patient with skill and great humanity.
It’s excruciatingly plain that part of his torment is his own awful awareness that he is trapped inside his nameless malady, his body burning and convulsing, his mouth babbling a rapid, ceaseless stream of absurdity, his mind alternately adrift and tugging at the moorings of a reality that has become too dreadful to contemplate. Like Lear – referenced directly in a late scene, where the king finds comfort in Shakespeare’s lines – he is driven through suffering to a greater knowledge of himself. Bennett suggests, too, that in unassailable power, there is already a kind of madness. How, after all, is it sane to suppose oneself superior to all other humanity? Is one who does truly fit to govern? These are questions that feel bitterly pertinent in 2020.
But if the solution is for the king to be “broken, like a horse,” then the spectacle is hellish – even when relieved by Bennett’s inky humour. In Adam Penford’s production, Gatiss is partnered by Adrian Scarborough as Willis, the supposedly progressive doctor who combines the most rudimentary of talking therapies with violent restraint. Outbursts are met with confinement to that terrible chair, which, with its gag and leather straps, grotesquely echoes the royal throne but also resembles an electric chair. Three other court medics – all near-frantic with self-interest – scrutinise his excrement, blister and bleed him, and administer laxatives and emetics. Whether, as for some time modern science assumed, George had porphyria, or whether, as more recent analysis has it, it was bipolar disorder, all of this could probably have been guaranteed to make things worse. Scarborough’s Willis, though, is no simple villain, but a man – like the king – convinced of his rightness.
Debra Gillett is warm and witty as George’s one true ally, Queen Charlotte, from whom he is brutally separated. Otherwise, women figure little in either the central tragedy or the political machinations that surround it – an issue Penford addresses with some cross-gender casting (the trinity of ghastly doctors are all played by women). Still, the supporting figures, and the connivings of assorted Tories and Whigs, remain very much satirical and historical background – even if David Hounslow’s advisor Thurloe, as slippery and nearly as repellant as Dominic Cummings, and Wilf Scolding’s vain, corseted Prince of Wales memorably make their mark. Snatches of sprightly Handel link scenes, and Robert Jones’ designs of handsome scenic backdrops – Gainsborough-ish landscapes, neoclassical architecture – are offset by glossy black floors that create an unnerving sense of placelessness and doubleness. Overall, Penford’s production embraces a quality of overt, playhouse theatricality that, on screen, demands some viewer adjustment, but soon seems well-suited to a play so concerned with the tensions between appearance and reality, panoply and private life, figurehead and human being. It delivers both an absorbing portrait and a clever, resonant and desperately sad spectacle.