The notion of monarchs as divine beings may have died on the scaffold with Charles I but the idea of the Royal Family as somehow “other” persists. We seem strangely delighted to learn that they have the same human foibles and failings as the rest of us, that life in its different ways has been difficult for all of them, that however much wealth, power of privilege we believe they have, tough choices have had to be made, terrible events lived through and hard lessons learned. And while many of our monarchs are consigned to historical caricature, they too were once rounded and complex people balancing their constitutional responsibilities with a myriad of political, personality and family pressures that shaped their reign.
Interest in the real people beyond the symbolic role has been revived in programmes such as The Crown, exploring the effect of great events on our most famous family. War, acts of Parliament and social change are important, but the way to engage audiences with them is tell human stories about their effects. Shakespeare knew that only too well and his monarchical plays last because they set aside the great events (which predominantly happen off-stage) and focus instead on dysfunctional relationships, personal betrayals and the psychology of Kingship where the individual must or cannot subjugate their inner self to the role of sovereign, as Henry V tries and Richard II fails to do. This pull between the needs of the body politic and the physical body of the ruler is fruitful ground for drama.
The revival of Alan Bennett’s 1991 classic The Madness of King George III at Nottingham Playhouse couldn’t then be more relevant, a play that speaks to our interest in the people who govern us as well as concerns about fitness to rule, mental health and its treatment. Notably screened via NT Live last week, this is a first for the National in its attempt to represent regional productions among its London-centric output. While the process of screening plays is now a well-established practice, and one that is becoming increasingly ambitious in terms of the productions it films and the international venues to which they are transmitted, for the actor, the presence of cameras presents a number of different challenges that can affect everything from the blocking to the scale of the individual’s performance.
Adam Penford’s production came alive on screen as surely as it must have for the audiences able to witness it first-hand, and what you lose in the communal atmosphere and immediacy of being physically present among the actors waiting to entertain you, you gain in a proximity to the action denied even to the front row. The NT Live cameramen have become an extra character on stage, panning between the wide-angled shots that show the big set pieces and evolving stage management, and the intimate close-ups that so few get to experience which are more redolent of cinema. What we see on screen hundreds if not thousands of miles away is a distillation of the director’s ultimate vision, a broader canvas often skilfully boiled down to a series of shots chosen by the NT Live team that usually reflect the decisions taken independently about what views are the most appropriate at any given time. Crucially, as a cinema-goer rather than a member of the live theatre audience, what you see and when is chosen for you by someone not involved directly in the original production.
The result is nonetheless impressive and despite a slow start, the barrier between cinema audience and the Nottingham stage soon dissolves. The intimacy of Penford’s production comes to the fore, emphasising the savage treatments meted-out to the ailing King George in an era that still mixed Enlightenment thinking and scientific endeavour with medieval beliefs in leeching poisons from the body to restore balance. In close-up, those seem even more torturous, burning the man’s body with cups, letting his blood and forcing his digestive and excretory system in an attempt to remove the possession that grips him. Penford doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of these procedures, suggesting both the thin veneer of respectability that society operated under, stylish, mannered, held by the conventions of politeness, but still capable of outrageous barbarism to the physical body in the name of medicine.
While Dr Willis is a perceived saviour, guaranteeing a cure with alternative means and a more nuanced understanding of the human mind, his methods seem no less distasteful. Bennett gives him plenty of dialogue that references “breaking-in” like a horse or wild creature needing to be tamed rather than an anointed monarch. The drama of the King’s restraint at the end of the first half is powerfully achieved, a clear affront to body, dignity and majesty that still shocks, and while Zadok the Priest is remarkably overused, it has a cinematic impact that signals a notable change of tone at the this point in the story.
Of course, this is also a political play about the thinly balanced majority of a governing party that is all to resonant in every age, and not least our present circumstances. What comes across so effectively in the NT Live screening is how disposable the person of the monarch really has been, susceptible to political tides and corrupt motives regardless of their status. The subplot involving the Prince of Wales and his Westminster ally Charles James Fox essentially attempting to bring down the existing regime is not a particularly subtle one with the potential for plenty of panto villainy – which is indeed how Nicholas Hytner’s arguably definitive 1995 film portrayed them, a pair of grotesques making a selfish play for power.
This production is a tad softer, and while the disruptive effects of “the fat one” and his co-conspirators is still played as a dastardly plot with little but self-aggrandisement at its heart, the role of the King and incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Pitt, are by no means heroic. Penford draws attention to how the deep divide between father and son ripples through this constitutional crisis to disastrous effect and with fault on both sides. Likewise, the dour Pitt is less a leader than a reed blowing in the wind, resting on past glories and unable to encourage the unification of party so desperately needed – sound familiar?
One of the advantages of an NT Live screening like this one, with its close-ups and focus on individual reaction, is to show just how personal the political was in this era, how significantly the day-to-day business of government is affected by the personality and sanguinity of the monarch. Even in an era before public enfranchisement, the importance of charismatic statesmanship in the building of alliances between party members and across the governing aristocracy was vital, a little bonhomie could go a very long way. As much as The Madness of King George III is a story about the cruel effects of poorly understood medical procedure on the body of the sovereign, this NT Live showing in conjunction with Penford’s directorial approach suggests that any kind of physical or constitutional weakness creates an opportunity for others to fill the void in a ruthless and unsympathetic grab for power. Kings may need time to recover but politics waits for no man.
The fact Mark Gatiss shines in the title role should be of little surprise and while his other stage performances have been more obviously comic, there is a far greater tragicomic balance in King George that builds on the character-roles he has played on television While ethical questions persist about the portrayal of mental health and changing expectations since Bennett penned the play in the early 1990s, Gatiss finds just the right balance between the regal leader commanding court and country with practised ease and the slow dissolution of mind that undoes the King’s grasp of himself over time. Crucially, George retains his knowledge of people and place, able to name everyone in his presence but cannot control his reaction or the speed with which brain and speech connect, which Gatiss shows with distinction.
Here, the presence of cameras is Gatiss’s ally, allowing him to display the subtle expressions and flickers of thought that you would never see from the back of the stalls. Already a consummate performer on TV and film, Gatiss shows how to pitch a performance simultaneously to the top of the balcony and to the intimate cinema audience, merging the big gestures of outrage and anger with the psychological effects of his condition and medical torture that create plenty of pathos. His attempts to regain control and frustration with himself are extremely sympathetic, while the humbleness that develops alongside his recovery becomes very moving as George learns that entitlement means nothing without kindness. The shock of his own fragility and the reconciliation process that should make him a more human monarch mark this as easily Gatiss’s best performance.
Equally skilled in managing stage and screen acting is the ever-wonderful Adrian Scarborough as the blunt Dr Willis. Such a superb character actor, the production actively steps-up a notch with his arrival towards the end of Act One with his no-nonsense approach that seems as controversial as it was effective. There is something independent in Scarborough’s portrayal that marks the doctor as quite a different influence from the court and political factions, refusing to be swayed by anything but his own belief in the science of his method, and a certainty of mind that borders on arrogance.
Yet, the audience remains largely on his side, almost preferring his advocacy of restraint and control to the horribly brutal leeching and burning caused by his fellow doctors. Scarborough’s Willis never asks to be liked but remains certain that he will cure the King, giving enough command that we believe him. Yet his own psychological state is not for discussion, so Scarborough ensures that the man we see is only a scientist, with everything else deliberately closed-off, even from the intrusive glare of the NT Live camera.
The surrounding cast have a more mixed experience with the cameras; Debra Gillett brings spousal affection to the role of Queen Charlotte, exasperated by her husband’s failing state and exerting a maternal protection that is quite affecting. Nicholas Bishop’s emotionless Pitt displays plenty of world-weary resignation as he desperately clings to power, but Amanda Hadingue in the dual role of court doctor Sir Lucas Pepys and Charles James Fox, along with Stephanie Jacob as Sir George Baker and Sheridan are a little stagey up-close, their comic buffoonery playing to the bigger audience in the room rather than the physical proximity of the cinema screen.
With plenty of enthusiastic reviews and the honour of an NT Live showing, a West End transfer for this Nottingham Playhouse Production shouldn’t be ruled out, capitalising as it does on our ongoing interest in humanising the Royal Family. With a change of monarch relatively close at hand, any new sovereign is something of an unknown quantity which, even within the limited powers they now hold, has consequences right across government. The story of George III and his son tells that whatever you think of monarchy as an institution, an established but indisposed king might be preferable to a louche one – better the devil you know!
The Madness of King George has now concluded its run at the Nottingham Playhouse, but details of NT Live Encore screenings throughout December are available on the website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.