My first review of a piece of student drama of the new academic year is going to be difficult one. The Madness of King George III is all over the place. I was so deeply, ardently frustrated and disappointed with this lazy, artless and vapid production that it is going be hard to maintain a professional attitude whilst I type this. I would hate what follows to turn into a shopping list of theatrical horrors, so I will try and provide a blush of analysis as long as my nerves will stand it.
So let’s start with the single diamond in the swamp, Philip Aspin as Pitt turns in a measured and interesting performance as the King’s minister. Unlike his fellow performers, Aspin appears to really take his time getting to know the character before opening his mouth. In every scene he appeared in, he was by far the most interesting actor to watch. In the middle is the performance of Jonathan Tilley as George. Tilley is an interesting stage presence who does very well with the character’s weird sense of humour. His voice is perfection, a rolling deep bass. More disappointing though is his handling of the monarch’s physical and mental decline. His decision to clutch his chest as a physical metaphor for his character’s affliction is an odd one as it restricts entirely the rest of a physical range.
From there on in everything nose-dives. Half the cast possess such poor technique they are inaudible, which must have sucked for everyone in the Circle because I was down at the front. Those that do make themselves understood come off second best in their battle with the script. A lot of hot air is often puffed at the mention of Alan Bennett’s name, he is a “national treasure” or a “British institution” but primarily he is playwright, and often a frustrating one. His peculiarly English and domestic style is, at its best, penetrating and emotionally resonant. At its worst, his dialogue noodles on and on without end in the name of realism.
The Madness of George III is one of Bennett’s better pieces. The basic concept of a sweet eccentric tortured and machinated against by those closest to him is peppered with Anglo-Saxon humour and wrings the most dramatic currency it can out of the opposition of fart gags and scenes of torture. The difficultly in this staging this show is summoning the necessary lightness of touch to cope with both ends of the dramatic spectrum.
This production fails comprehensively and the script suffers heinous group mutilation. The direction is so poor that many conversations are staged so actors are facing away from the audience, not even giving them a chance. All the student drama clichés make an appearance: bafflingly patching lighting, blasts of music to substitute for emotion and performance, empty stages, characters talking over each other, dodgy accents, performances so wooden they’ve been sawn from the same material as the set and an a total absence of characterisation.
All the participants in this production need to ask themselves whether this is really good enough. A cursory flick through the programme indicates that this was an offering from the heavyweights on the Oxford student drama scene. Based on this, I am not optimistic about my next student review.