Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, declares Shakespeare’s Henry IV, but it’s the Bard’s King Lear that provides the redemption for the troubled head of King George III in Alan Bennett’s historical epic.
It is now 20 years since the play was first staged at the National Theatre and it’s been rarely performed since. Last year, a budget touring production received a luke-warm reception but now The Peter Hall Company’s acclaimed Theatre Royal Bath production hits the road and it proves to be a much more majestic affair.
As the Crown loses control of the American Colonies, so the Monarch also begins to show signs of losing his composure. Subtle at first but, as the mania grows, the future of the Monarchy itself is at stake. It takes an unorthodox medical intervention to offer both King and Country hope of recovery.
For a play that has become synonymous with Nigel Hawthorne’s original performance, both on stage and on film, it’s a challenge for any actor to step into the role and make it his own. David Haig, however, takes the challenge full on and delivers a performance of incredible depth and detail. His is a Monarch clearly troubled by the burden of power, totally convinced of his divine right to rule but also tempered by a desire to understand his subjects.
Of course, The Madness of George III is more than a one-man vehicle and director Christopher Luscombe has brought together a strong ensemble that provides amble support for Haig’s central performance. There are well observed outings, including among others, Beatie Edney as the devoted Queen Charlotte; Christopher Keegan as the playboy Prince of Wales; and Clive Francis as the unorthodox Dr Francis Willis. It is a universally accomplished company, however, with fine performances across the board.
Janet Bird’s design conjures up a simple regal elegance, with palace opulence suggested by framed flats and oak-panelled doors. The simplicity of the design, shaped by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, allows for a fluidity of movement across Bennett’s multitude of locales, while a series of impressive tableaux conjure up impressions of a Gainsborough portrait.
There are moments in Bennett’s script that seem to be unsure if they belong to a historical drama or a bawdy comedy but, overall, it’s an epic piece of historical drama that also manages to portray the deeply intimate. Luscombe’s production also echoes the large scale while also focussing on the isolation of the monarch.
This is a production that returns Bennett’s classic to its rightful place on the stage in a staging to remember. A tour that you would be mad to miss.
Originally published on The Public Reviews