Revivals can sometimes be stronger than the original productions. That’s certainly the case with Christopher Luscombe’s staging of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III. Janet Bird’s simple, stylised settings combined with authentic-looking costumes and a superb use of snatches of Handel’s most triumphant music allows the pageant of the British court at the end of the 1780s to flare into real life and real people.
But all that’s merely the setting for a towering performance by David Haig of the king. It’s an extraordinary portrayal of a man with enormous responsibilities who suffered from physical as well as mental torments and then found himself completely at the mercy of the worst which contemporary medical science could inflict on him. Standing ovations at the curtain calls are often contrived. This one was earned, and thoroughly deserved.
That George III carries some of the blame for the activities of the male members of his dysfunctional family and the political turmoils of the period carries no weight against Haig’s portrayal. Restrained by his servants and badgered by his sons, doctors and politicians, Haig’s king writhes out of these visible and psychological constraints with verbal outpourings and physical dexterity.
Pain wracks the audience as much as it does the man on stage; the 21st century is as powerless to do more than watch as was the 18th. It helps, of course, that there are some very good performances from other cast members, but the evening is Haig’s, and rightly so. Gary Oliver as Fox, Orlando James as the more sympathetic of the king’s equerries and Charlotte Asprey as Lady Pembroke do more than decorate their scenes and help the story along.
Beatie Edney is a sympathetic Queen Charlotte and Clive Francis as mad-doctor Willis suggests that his regime has its altruistic as well as mercenary side. Nicholas Rowe’s Pitt the Younger catches the hard core of the man as well as his weakness. And there’s a delicious sketch by Christopher Keegan of the Prince of Wales, padded, prinked out and prancing like an over-fluffed poodle.