The Madness of King George

Alan Bennett
Birmingham Rep

2003 seems to have shaped up as a year of wine and roses as far as provincial theatre is concerned with Northampton, Bristol and Birmingham’s flagship theatres, among others, enjoying a resurgence of critical and commercial success. Among the highlights of the year at the Birmingham Rep under Jonathan Church’s artistic directorship, are the David Hare trilogy, a fine co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and now the second co-production of Alan Bennett’s 1991 smash, The Madness of King George.

Perhaps the first thing to say about this production is that Michael Pennington, who plays the eponymous George III, has some mighty large shoes to fill. The late Nigel Hawthorne, who starred in the original National Theatre production, won a best actor award for his portrayal and went on to further success in a film of the play. The second thing to say is that Pennington, a fine actor in his own right, acquits himself very well and makes the role very much his own.

Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, who co-directed the David Hare trilogy at the Rep, the production is confident, pacey and clearly spoken. The set by Francis O’Connor, is simple, but effective: a sweep of red stairs ascend to the podium and a pair of muslin curtains which frame the action. As the play opens, the American colonies have been lost, much to George’s chagrin, so much so that he cannot bear to have them mentioned. Under the political leadership of Pitt, the policy is steady as she goes, but his rival Fox and his cronies are circling and when the king falls ill, Pitt’s enemies and the foppish and wastrel Regent, George IV to be, scent blood.

The cause of the illness is now generally accepted as porphyria, a congenital condition which led to four breakdowns with symptoms which included talking incessantly for 24 hours a day and verbal sexual and other obscenities, in contrast with his normal, decorous conversation. Pennington is marvellous as the bluff Farmer George, what-whatting and relishing Bennett’s terrific script with lines like, "Saving your presence, I’ll try a fart." He’s fine too in his decline; what he somehow misses, and I’m not sure why, is the full pathos: he never really wrings your heart.

It has been suggested elsewhere that this gets lost somewhere amidst all the pageantry and bustle. Bennett has an awful lot of information to get in to make sense of the political and court life then and why a monarch’s incapacity should be so destabilising. It may also be, I suspect, that Bennett’s instincts are naturally comic which militates against the truly tragic. Thus, there are some very fine performances by the medical men, Ian Barrit as Doctor Warren, Timothy Kightley as Sir George Baker and Tony Turner as Sir Lucas Pepys, but it’s hard to mine these characters for comedy and simultaneously make the audience feel the barbarity of a so-called science which blistered, bled and purged its patients with no real idea of what it was doing.

Other performances to highlight include Stewart Wright, seen this year in the award-winning Bristol Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who is wonderfully comic as the scheming regent, and David Killick as Thurlow. Only Ken Drury as Dr Willis, the man brought in to save the King, seems slightly miscast. All in all, a very entertaining two-and-a-half hours.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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