From The League of Gentlemen to Sherlock’s smirking Mycroft Holmes, Mark Gatiss has built a career playing the grotesque and the pompous. But freakish roles are rarely leads in our theatrical canon. No wonder Gatiss was excited to take on Alan Bennett’s vision of George III – mischievous and demanding, even as his poor mental health is matched by a debilitating physical decline. Productions of The Madness of George III live or die by their star, and Gatiss delivers a tour de force. This is a viscerally repulsive depiction of the gap between public and private life.
Watching the play today, you detect its impact on the 2010 film The King’s Speech. George III, smarting from the loss of the US colonies, suffers a nervous breakdown. Obsequious orthodox doctors are tried and fail. Eventually, the king’s true friends discover the obscure but honest Dr Willis (Adrian Scarborough). Like a coach in a sports movie, Willis uses maverick methods and is impervious to social status: the king must learn to accept the absolute authority of another human being.
Can the unorthodox Willis rouse the king to recuperate in time to stop the spoiled Prince of Wales from seizing the powers of a regent? There is, of course, a historical answer to this, and Willis doesn’t permanently save the day. Thus Bennett sets his play not over the full course of George III’s reign – which did descend into royal incapacity and a profligate son’s regency – but in the Regency crisis of 1788-89, during the king’s first, limited bout of illness.
At the time of the play’s premiere in 1991, porphyria was still widely accepted as the cause of George III’s illness, and due lip service is paid to the king’s physical symptoms. (Director Adam Penford has much comic play with bowls of purple urine.) But Bennett is interested in forms of madness as social dysfunction. Willis insists that too much royal indulgence has cost the king his mental discipline.
The scenes between Scarborough and Gatiss are electric. Scarborough deftly plays on the difference between his therapeutic authoritarianism and his medical rivals’ more brutally physical sadism. Establishment doctors are this play’s fools – so it is concerning that Penford has them all acted by women. Early on, George III prides himself on Britain’s ban on torture. But as Gatiss descends into a slobbering wreck, blisters and leaches distorting his frame, we’re left questioning the inviolability of human dignity.
Most of the cast is as strong. Debra Gillett is an endearing Queen Charlotte and Sara Powell is sympathetic as the lady-in-waiting embarrassed by George’s new disinhibitions. Robert Jones’ right-angled, revolving sets emphasise the classical geometry of 18th-century courtly life, against which Gatiss’s disarray is ever more pronounced.
Why revive this play now? It is clearly a perfect star vehicle for Gatiss. But lines that might metastasise Bennett’s 1991 resonances to 2018 – a government consumed by constitutional stalemate? The leader of the western world an imbecile? – are thrown away or undeveloped. Nevertheless, this is a technically excellent production of a modern classic.