The Madness of George III

Alan Bennett

Apollo Theatre

From 18 January 2012 to 31 March 2012

Review by Philip Fisher

It may only be January but in this transfer from the Theatre Royal in Bath, London may already have witnessed the supreme acting performance of the year.

At this moment, it is hard to believe that anyone can surpass the magical efforts of David Haig, a man hitherto best known as a comedy specialist, most recently on stage as Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister.

One sign of his success is the ease with which he enables us to forget the efforts of Nigel Hawthorne who so impeccably created the role on stage and screen, starting in 1991 at the National under Nicholas Hytner long before either was knighted.

While Alan Bennett's wit shines through on a constant basis, the tragedy of King George III at the end of the 1780s is searing and heart-breaking.

Part of the problem, which among other symptoms turn urine a suitably royal purply-blue, might lie in the stress induced by history and politicking. The King had a presidential role, supported by Nicholas Rowe as his Prime Minister, the puritanical Pitt.

Waging mental warfare were the two eldest royal princes played by Christopher Keegan and William Belchambers, both perhaps too foolishly foppish to be completely believable with support from would-be PM Charles James Fox, Gary Oliver.

Soon, everyone is out to get the King or in most cases to be enriched by his demise, The shining exceptions are his loyal German Queen Charlotte played by Beatie Edney and valiant but kindly manservant Captain Greville, West End debutant Orlando James seemingly to the manner born.

The descent is fast, the King moving from control to unwatchable pain and raging madness in days. This is where Haig excels, carrying along his audience every step of the way, which must also owe a great deal to director, Christopher Luscombe.

The actor does not make a wrong move through the 2½ hours and is shockingly convincing in depicting a victim trapped into cruelly uncharacteristic behaviour by his own brain.

In the early scenes, the workaholic George is portrayed as a considerate, cultivated intellectual with an interest in every aspect of his kingdom.

Strangely, this story in some ways prefigures The King's Speech right down to a stammering impediment triumphantly overcome.

While a trio of scary quacks led by Peter Pacey as hopeless Sir George Baker, who may be President of the Royal College of Physicians but "could not cure a gammon ham", it is a fourth who makes the difference.

Clive Swift's "drab, provincial and unconnected (but at least not from the colonies) Willis has a stated aim to make sure that his patient "is broken as a horse is broken".

The unconventional healer achieves this by relying on the now modish but then unknown talking cure, which he applies to an ailment that neither he nor modern medicine can definitively identify.

Happily, those who know their history will realise that the cured King ruled for another three decades after his miraculous recovery.

What could be a dreary and depressing play is steered away from such a fate by the fact that Alan Bennett is such a delicious writer who not only gives us a history lesson but leavens it with memorable epigrams and his trademark humour complemented by detailed characterisation, at least of the central figure.

This really is a great night out and visitors should race to the Apollo to see a brilliant piece of acting prowess from David Haig in a play that easily stands the test of time.

Check for tickets for The Madness of George III from 1st 4 London Theatre Tickets.