When I read it I fell in love with it and felt ‘I’ve got to do this!’ You don’t feel that very often in life. It’s the most extraordinary tragic-comedy and no one does it better than Alan Bennett. He’s an astonishing writer. One of the great things about this play is they’re all wonderful parts – they’re all beautifully, comically delineated.
How do you feel about being in such a ground-breaking production?
It’s the first professional tour of the play since it was premiered, which is wonderful. I’m following in the shoes of Nigel Hawthorne (who starred in the original National Theatre production and the subsequent film adaptation), was hugely successful and became synonymous with the role. Trying to bring whatever strengths or humours one has to the role is a big step and leaves one feeling a bit frightened.
How do you approach the role of King George III?
It’s one of the best parts I’ve ever been asked to play. I love it so much. It’s going to be incredibly tiring. In the first five minutes he’s displaying the physical symptoms of his illness. He’s not on stage the whole time because the beastly court and doctors are gossiping about him. But every time he goes off stage there’s a costume change or some huge leap forward in his symptoms so he exits in one stage of his condition, and when he comes back on he’s 50 times worse. I think it’s now accepted that he had porphyria, a malfunction of the haemoglobin cells in the blood – he went from great excitement to deep despair.
Do you like George III?
He’s an incredibly sympathetic character – you could say that of all the Hanoverian Georges he is the one sympathetic character. Everyone was terribly fond of the king, which is one of the reasons the story is so poignant. The people in the streets wanted to know what was wrong with him, and if he was getting better. If he was better there was joy and happiness in the land, if he was worse they were gloomy. There was a real affection and admiration for him as a man which, considering we had lost our American colonies, was surprising. He never got over that loss; he felt we had lost Eden and in a sense, of course, we had.
Will the themes of the play be relevant to a modern audience?
Very much so. There is something deeply comical about this character and about the way his symptoms are presented. And there is something deeply comical about the other characters, in particular the doctors. Yet at the same time it makes you want to weep with rage at the way he’s treated – they tie him in a restraining chair, gag him. But he survived it. And it changed attitudes towards mental illness – there is an argument that things were never the same again after the king recovered, which is quite something.
You were at the National Youth Theatre from the age of 13 which makes yours a long career.
Keeping going’s a great achievement. More and more of one’s friends fall off the twig or just don’t work any more. One of the great things about the job is you can laugh from ten in the morning to six at night – there’s always something funny going on.
You’ve done a mix of theatre, television and films – do you prefer one form over any other?
You can’t compare working in a theatre to working on a movie. With some movies, you go to the most glamorous places and have an absolute whale of a time for three or four months. It’s like being on a wonderful paid holiday in a country you would not have visited otherwise. For theatre, the places you go to when touring a play are not necessarily so glamorous, but there’s a marvellous thing about it – you have control over the performance. In a movie you don’t, you do what the director asks you to, and your prized moments may end up on the cutting room floor. In theatre, when the curtain goes up, you’re in charge. That’s wonderfully liberating. And the audience members are like another character on stage – they’re always different.
When Stephen Fry walked out of the play Cell Mates and went missing, you took over his role. What was that like?
I wouldn’t want to do that again. I had no time to learn the part properly – I’m talking about three days. There’s about four pages in Russian, and I don’t speak Russian. So I sacrificed some of the Russian so I could learn the English dialogue. I gather that the Russian ambassador was there the first night I played it – I don’t know what he made of my Russian because I was talking nonsense! Then I polished it up and learned it better. What was terrible about the situation was when Stephen disappeared it became a running news story. The papers took the view that he’d gone because the play hadn’t got good reviews – Stephen’s reviews weren’t bad – and that did for the whole thing. You can’t expect audiences to come see a play when they’re reading on the front page that Stephen’s left because it’s a bad play. It was a poisoned chalice which I picked up but I knew that. Within two days of his leaving the bottom dropped out of the Box Office, before I was asked to take over.
More recently you’ve played a judge in Judge John Deed, the devious bishop Gardiner in The Tudors and now a king – where do you go from here?
Well I’ve already been Jesus and I’ve been the devil in a film. The devil wasn’t such hard work as Jesus because that was in the York Mystery Plays. To be crucified eight times a week in front of 3,500 people in the open air in early June at midnight in Yorkshire is quite tricky. It was cold and sometimes it would rain. As the devil I got to wear some wonderful Italian white suits, always looking as innocent as I could be. So where next? I don’t know. Kings are good, it’s good to be king. Never in my life have I known what’s going to happen next.