Brighton Year-Round 2023
Surely the Sarah Mann Company’s finest hour, overcoming the BOAT’s wondrous yet treacherous acoustics – and weather. Alan Bennet’s 1991 The Madness of George III is their most ambitious, most jaw-dropping production. This magnificent revival poses even more urgent questions. A twitch on the thread for all of us.
Directed by Nick Bartlett, Sarah Mann, Choir Directed by Simon Gray
Choir Members Lindsey McKee, Alice Hamilton, Helen Lewis, Marion Tinkler, Yvonne Fair, Susan Fleet, Naomi Bates, Susan Purbrick, Christina Manchester, Liz Bradshaw, Jackie Mahler, Jenny White, Sally Walker, Sue Burchett, Susan Jones, Jenny Davys, Ginny Greenwood, Fran Mortimer, Angie Dean, Samuel Cousins, Alan Baser, Nick Boston, Yohai Nezri, Pau Wylie, Chris Tippett, Chris Phipps, Steve Robertson, Brian Ogilvy, Dave Mantle, Ian Groves, Diane Pyle, Lindsey McKee
Assistant Director/ASM Nadia Bartlett, Technical Stage Manager Giles Wood, Fight Choreography Jack Kristiansen, Costume, Wigs and Prop Supervisor Sean Chapman, Original Photo Sarah Mann, Photo Design Nathan Ariss, Posters, Flyer, Programme Designer Jim Stokes, Photographer James Weisz, Costumes from the National Theatre, Gladrags, Harveys of Hove, Restraining Choir from the Original National Theatre production.
With thanks to Nicki Stoddart at United Agents, Janette Eddisford, Dan Finlay, Vani & Saskia at Gladrags, Wayne and Lorna at Harvey of Hove, Simon Gray and members of the Community Choir, Joy & Sue at The Unemployed Families Centre, Sian Webber, Andrew Kay and everyone at BOAT.
Till July 15th
This latest Sarah Mann Company production at BOAT – Alan Bennet’s 1991 The Madness of George III – is their most ambitious, most jaw-dropping. Directed by Nick Bartlett and Sarah Mann it stars Nathan Ariss and Doug Devaney in a 23-strong cast, 31-strong choir.
Following on from Abigail’s Party and another Bennett classic The Lady in the Van in 2021, expectations are as sky-high as the choir’s sopranos. Despite lowering clouds they all pierce the heavens.
Ominously relevant in a new era of unhinged majesty, it shows that in 1789 there were (if cruel) checks and balances, sadly lacking in the Versailles Court then, and certainly in the Spamalot still what-whatting across the pond; and not just there.
It’s far more important than that though, and as a play will outlast monsters it gives echo to. Depicting savageries inflicted on mental distress that haven’t vanished, it equally addresses how to negotiate the paralysis of an empire’s government. The king appoints ministers too, so when governments stall, defect from themselves, fall, crisis looms.
At its heart is the dilemma of an intelligent conscientious man in power suddenly afflicted, treated barbarously, recovering in the teeth of his son, with the shadow of further collapses presaging a final catastrophe. Something we know, and Bennett and Ariss hint at in a final twitch; but something this play doesn’t.
Indeed, diagnoses have succeeded the 1991 suggestions as prodigiously as the king’s garrulous speech. The 18th century was obsessed with mechanical bodily functions as explainer. A bit like a clock. Good luck with that.
There’s something in ‘prodigious stools’ the foolish if elegant Dr Thurlow (the excellent Murray Simon) is obsessed by; modern science began to agree with him. Dr Pepys (Ross Gurney-Randall’s florid first role), the foolish urine man suggests the nearest miss: porphyria. We’re reminded in a note that George III’s purply-blue urine was due to gentian intake: George III is a likely bi-polar sufferer.
Dr Baker (Robert Cohen, superbly twitchy, laconic, status-conscious, credulous, selling shares into a national panic) nominally in charge converts everyone to pulse-taking. Time for Devaney’s Dr Willis, from a Lincolnshire farm aka asylum. Devaney only arrives towards the end of Act One – then is virtually never off.
Like all the cast, his voice cuts through. Delivering Willis’ insolent decrees, brushings-aside, intent on “breaking” George like a horse he brings his own barbarity. Devaney plants parson-decked Willis like a mobile oak-tree: unperturbed, penetrating, insightful but absolute monarch.
Sean Chapman’s set of props are miracles of economy. Just the National Theatre’s own Restraining Chair from that 1991 production, and pin-point sumptuous NT costumes (see above for full credits); they clarify these roles: colour-coded footmen (light turquoise and red), dun-coloured or green for politicians and medics, black elsewhere and fantastic Chancellor robes and wigs.
So with an opening red-rolled carpet, sofas, chaise-long and blue feather fans, the corridors of power, Westminster, Lincolnshire asylum, faded palace rooms in Kew or Windsor are evoked. It matches Bennett’s fluidity. And that off-white chaise-long throne doubling as bed, amidst stools in white pisspots.
Conductor Simon Gray and his marvellous black-clad choir (an astonishing spectacle) naturally deploys Handel’s 1727 Anthem Zadok the Priest at the stunning anti-enthroning end of the first act and twice thereafter; there’s a moment of Handel’s Dixit Dominus too.
Traversal’s brisker in the first act than the shorter second, which admittedly drags a little: the work takes two hours fifty, with mostly seamless dissolves.
Ariss is a commanding quite steely George, less vulnerable than he might be, revelling in Bennet’s formalized staccato language. Though with hints of tenderness – and bursts of comedy.
This sets up what force must be overthrown bursting out of restraint. When himself he highlights his quick-witted absolute recall, clarity and incisiveness. There’s a frown even here to suggest not just the rage following when all’s disinhibition, but the habit of command inbred.
Ariss demonstrates iron-in-velvet threat. It makes denouement dismissals easier to believe. Throughout his illness though there’s a Lear-like deepening of humanity, there at the opening, compounded by reading King Lear near his recovery, one of the most moving scenes for being read so flat.
When himself again George loses this. Bennett reminds us (in his playtext introduction) the king wasn’t really as ungrateful, though it makes for excellent theatre, proving all that Shakespeare prepares a magnificent pay-off.
It’s unhinged moments that define Ariss’s performance: that iconic explosion of screams as he’s first strapped into the restraining chair as Zadok the Priest blares, like Bacon’s Screaming Pope (Innocent XII) or Turnage’s orchestral Three Screaming Popes.
Ariss’s fragmentary speeches are virtuoso spasms, but also gradations slipping from inappropriate language to repetition to spasmodic incoherence. And back. And his torture, visibly blistered on back and head – broken open to let the badness out: medieval hangovers. It’s the most visceral Ariss has ever been; it’s stunning.
There’s a strange affinity. Aloof cerebral celibate and teatoalling William Pitt is –rightly chilly in Josh Crisp’s stern-voiced portrayal, every syllable counting: desperate to balance books, promote efficiency. Another post-Newtonian clock with flask-swigs. Which he keeps running at the expense of some sanity. His equally efficiency-obsessed father Pitt the Elder died mad; Pitt the Younger initially refuses to believe the king “mad”.
It isn’t just denial to let the Prince of Wales (excellently puff-piffled, petulant Paddy Cooper, padded, fantastically bewigged) appoint the opposition, aided by his shrewder brother Amelia Armande’s more cat-like Duke of York (though only just discovering they’re a Fellow of the Royal Society). It’s a singular moral stance, right for mixed reasons. Pitt trusts only Andrew Clover’s loyal, perceptive Dundas, here Scottish Enlightenment personified, perfect foil to Pitt’s pragmatism.
Devaney’s Dr Willis here shows power in reserve: an unleashed bark for the medical trio of twittering incompetents with “prodigious stools” and purple-blue urine, despite stumbling near the malodorous truth. Though in 1789 the “we’re General Practitioners” with their holistic self-congratulations – “we treat the whole body” – were social superiors over mere “specialists”. Willis’ kind had a long ascendency ahead.
Gurney-Randall’s Whig opposition leader Fox lives up to his name, but here adds avuncular pragmatism to a merely sly role; it’s satisfying. Liberal instincts don’t abate a lust for power, to get reform rather than efficiency done – a contrast not lost on today’s polarised politics. We’ve already seen his delicious Dr Pepys – the doubling’s habitual.
Jack Kristiansen’s witty ex-playwright plotter Sheridan plays like his own villains: a light, skirling edge to speech. He doubles as servant Braun and directs fight choreography. Of all doctors bar Willis it’s Julian Parkin’s seemingly more intelligent Dr Warren who warns of specialism, asserts what will work: blistering. Parkin’s stainless-steel certainty cuts like an infected scalpel.
Simon’s trimming Chancellor Thurlow is curiously sympathetic, never on the losing side as Pitt notes complacently. Roped into Lear which staggers him Thurlow proposes a happy ending, which as Bennett slyly knows held the stage for 160 years from 1660. Humanising a trimmer is a Bennett speciality. Simon’s a distinctive voice.
As it is for the icy equerry Fitzroy, Nick Bartlett (also Sir Boothby Skrysmshir, wheedling his son Ramsden – cringingly funny Rachel Mullock – for MP); and Andrew Crouch’s warm junior, Greville (impressing here in 2021 as Mark Anthony).
It’s the humanity cauterised that elicits sympathy though. Sarah Mann’s Queen Charlotte with her enforced separation really tells in Mann’s detail of bewilderment; her betrayal as the king strays for the only time to the charms of Pip Henderson’s composed, worldly yet smouldering Lady Pembroke. Henderson (also Margaret Nicholson the opening scene’s maniac would-be assassin) is memorable in havering acts of oblivion when the recovered king tries remembering outbursts.
Junior even to Greville, Mullock’s nicely studied, truculent Fortnum after spraying a little impertinence is off for easier work: founding a grocer’s in Piccadilly. Luke Seymour’s affecting Papandiek might partner him it’s suggested. In a telling disconnect with history Seymour departs with skipping whoops at Fortnum & Papandiek. This despite Papandiek’s being more invested in the king’s recovery than even Greville or practical Braun, Kristiansen’s alacritous footman. It’s he who gives some truly memorable lines.
Bennett traces recovery through guying medicine and politics. Urine’s changed colour. “Look at his piss. We’re back to lemonade…. Piss the Elder! Piss the Younger!” Braun labels to sentimental Papandiek. As a summary take on power-change, it’s not been bettered.
There’s sterling work by Sue Burchett as Maid (also FOH), Footmen Matilda Mabbitt, Finlay Brookes, Noah Buckingham: especially during the servant fight-scenes. And a shout-out to the Regent’s long-suffering blue-fan-wielding “Girls” Alice Hamilton and Maya Kihara.
Ariss, Devaney and Crisp are outstanding; with magnificent support from all, principally the major roles: Crouch, Simon, Clover, Mann, Cohen, Gurney-Randall, Parkin, Bartlett, Kristiansen. There’s not a weak link, all are ideally clear in this blustery venue. Only a slightly-dragging second act with a couple of missed cues distinguishes this from the greatest productions.
But this surely, is the Sarah Mann Company’s finest hour, overcoming more than any other revival the BOAT’s wondrous yet treacherous acoustics – and weather. I wish it were filmed like the superb choir clip.
There’s much meditation on sanity, the king in or out of his mind and body. The finale Bennett originally planned then discarded as untheatrical points one moral. Typically Bennett inserts it into his introduction as a destabilising option. Addressing the audience George III asserts after a roll-call ending with the Shah: ”The doctors even killed off George V to make the first edition of The Times. I tell you dear people, if you’re poorly, it’s safer to be poor and ordinary.” It’s something he darkly contradicts in his most recent play, Allelujah!
Pitt declares “nothing of moment” in Europe: “some minor disturbances in Paris, and the mob broke open the Bastille.” But with outrage and worldwide anti-racist riots, inhuman leadership and our own government treacherous to many including the NHS (“to be kind does not commend you to kings” – or near-dead prime ministers), this magnificent revival with Ariss poses even more urgent questions than it did in 1991. A twitch on the thread for all of us.