From the pen of Alan Bennett, author of The History Boys and Talking Heads, The Madness of George III is an epic play, set at a time of great social change and revolution. In France, the aristocracy were losing their heads; in England, King George III was still smarting at the loss of the colonies which broke away from the crown to form the fledgling United States of America.
With such tumultuous events in the background, the play tells the story of a learned man driven by duty and kingship, with an insatiable interest in his people and his kingdom and about the ties that bind us together as family, as a society and as a nation. Set in 1786, this enthralling and darkly humorous play chronicles George’s heart-breaking (and at the time inexplicable) descent into “madness” and the effect this has on his family, his government and his country.
Bennett’s clever script allows the audience to draw very subtle parallels between 18th and 21st century politics, monarchy and a media-driven society. The “tabloid” reporting of the king’s health and the Regency crisis resulted in a furore in Parliament which threatened to bring down the government and alter the course of history. But despite such monumental and far reaching consequences, the story remains a human one; the contrast between the self-serving politicians and the Prince Regent hoping to exploit the situation on one hand and those in the King’s inner circle who cared for and loved him is expertly drawn.
As George, Simon Ward is superb, delivering a harrowing and heart-wrenching performance which will surely earn him many plaudits as the production travels the country. His skilful portrayal of George’s gradual decline expertly leads the audience unwittingly to the shocking predicament he finds himself in by the close of the first act. As his loyal and loving wife Queen Charlotte, Susan Penhaligan is also excellent, and the intimacy and sweetness of their relationship is both poignant and believable.
Amongst the servants and sycophants that surround the central characters, Jamie Hinde – as Pitt, the King’s Prime Minister – and Knight Marshall as Willis stand-out. Ian Marr, Courtney Spence and Jamie Hinde (in a dual role) as the trio of quack doctors that fawn over and exploit the ailing monarch bring some much needed, and well observed, comedy to the situation.
Although the narrative is perhaps wordy and the pace at times a little sluggish, the story is so engrossing and the central performance by Ward so mesmerising, that the three hours that the play is on stage fairly flies by. With the wondrous music of Handel underscoring the action, and the powerful “Zadok the Priest” gloriously framing the close of the first half, this classic production is rewarding for both the ear and the soul. A tremendous achievement.