Fringe Online 2020
Directed by Adam Penford, this Nottingham Playhouse production features Mark Gattiss and Adrian Scarborough. Robert Jones’ set is a miracle of duck-egg-green, swiftly-spun wall panels, tenebrously-lit winter court by Richard Howell. Tom Gibbons’ sound naturally deploys Handel’s 1727 Anthem Zadok the Priest and other Handel orchestral music, mainly the royal suites and Concerti Grossi; and later 18th century British pieces.
Broadcast Live note: Allowing theatrical atmosphere with long-shots and making much play of the richly-brocaded curtains, and just a shrouded sense of the audience, the camera shots were deft, unobtrusive, and quietly spectacular. Close-ups revealed more than a live audience could hope for, and the smoky theatrical atmosphere of this unique venue captured. This NT Live proves a model of its kind. Till June 18th.
This latest NT LiveAtHome – the re-screening of Alan Bennet’s 1991 The Madness of George III – is the tenth. With the last five titles announced on the day of its premiere we’re taking stock of a remarkable legacy. And a bit of a lifeline.
Nottingham Playhouse’s 2018 revival directed by Alan Penford and starring Mark Gattiss and Adrian Scarborough is the first since David Haig in the title role at Chichester in 2011. 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 Gattiss hints at in a final twitch; but something this play doesn’t.
Indeed, diagnoses have succeeded the 1991 suggestions of things almost as prodigious as the king’s helplessly garrulous speech. The post-Newtonian 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 Dr Thurlow is obsessed by; modern science began to agree with him. Dr Pepys, the foolish urine man suggests what turns out the nearest miss: porphyria. Certainly George III suffered from a liver disorder producing purply-blue urine consistent with this. Dr Baker nominally in charge converts everyone to pulse-taking. Time for Adrian Scarborough’s Dr Willis, from a Lincolnshire farm aka asylum.
Robert Jones’ set is a miracle of duck-egg-green, swiftly-spun flat-wall panels in every permutation as actors pull invisible wires to create instant courts, a House of Commons snapshot with dispatch box, corridors of power, faded palace rooms in Kew or Windsor. It matches Bennett’s fluidity. And that scarlet-sashed throne, amidst tables chairs stools – and stools in transparent pisspots. We see a lot of them, refracted though a tenebrously-lit winter court by Richard Howell.
Tom Gibbons’ sound naturally deploys Handel’s 1727 Anthem Zadok the Priest at the stunning ant-enthroning end of the first act; and other Handel orchestral music, mainly Royal Suites, Concerti Grossi, and later 18th century British pieces.
Penford’s traversal is brisk, the whole work taking around two hours forty, where Jones’ unfussy immediacy aids seamless dissolves.
Gattiss is a commanding quite steely George, less vulnerable than he might be, revelling in Bennet’s formalized staccato language. 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.
Gattiss is always good at power-behind-throne roles. Here he demonstrates a kind of iron-in-velvet threat. It makes the denouement dismissals easier to believe. Throughout his illness though there’s a Lear-like deepening of humanity that’s 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 seems to lose this entirely. Bennett reminds us (in his playtext introduction) that the king wasn’t really as ungrateful, though it makes for excellent theatre proving all that Shakespeare prepares a magnificent pay-off.
It is of course the unhinged moments that define Gattiss’s performance: that now iconic explosion of screams as he’s first strapped into the restraining chair as Zadok the Priest blares out, like Bacon’s Screaming Pope (Innocent XII) or Turnidge’s orchestral Three Screaming Popes. Gattiss’s broken and fragmentary speeches are virtuoso spasms, but also the gradations slipping from inappropriate language to repetition to spasmodic incoherence. And back. And his torture, from being blistered on back and head – broken open to let the badness out: medieval hangovers. It’s the most visceral the cerebral Gattiss has ever been, and it’s stunning.
There’s a strange affinity. Aloof cerebral celibate and teatoalling William Pitt is – as he should be – a relatively chilly young man in Nicholas Bishop’s portrayal: desperate to balance books, promote efficiency. Another post-Newtonian clock. Which he keeps running at the expense of some sanity. His equally efficiency-obsessed father Pitt the Elder died mad; Pitt the Younger refuses to believe the king ‘mad’. He’s right in a sense. It isn’t just denial to let the Prince of Wales (an excellently overweening petulant Wilf Scolding) appoint the opposition, aided by his shrewder brother Harry Kershaw’s more attractive Duke of York. It’s a singular moral stance, right for mixed reasons. Pitt trusts perhaps only Andrew Joshi’s loyal but perceptive Dundas, perfect foil to Pitt’s pragmatism.
Scarborough’s Dr Willis here shows power in reserve, with an unleashed bark for the medical trio of twittering incompetents with their ‘prodigious stools’ and purple-blue urine, despite of course 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.
Amanda Hadingue’s Whig opposition leader Fox lives up to her name, liberal instincts not even abating a lust for power, to get reform rather than efficiency done – a contrast not lost on today’s polarised politics. Her contrasting wittier Dr Pepys is delicious. Stephanie Jacob’s witty ex-playwright plotter Sheridan contrasts with her pulse-snatching buffoon Dr Baker. Of all the doctors bar Willis it’s Louise Jameson’s Dr Warren who asserts what will work, that blistering. Jameson’s stainless-steel certainty cuts like an infected scalpel.
David Hounslow’s Trimming Thurlow is a curiously sympathetic figure, despite never being on the losing side as Pitt notes as a fact of life. Roped into Lear which staggers him he proposes a happy ending, which as Bennett slyly knows held the stage for 160 years from 1660. Humanising a trimmer is a Bennett speciality.
As it is for the icy equerry Fitzroy, Nadia Albina, and Jack Holden’s warm junior, Greville. It’s the humanity cauterised that elicits sympathy though. Debra Gillett’s Queen Charlotte and her bewildered enforced separation, her betrayal as the king strays for the only time to the charms of Sara Powell’s composed worldly yet smouldering Lady Pembroke.
Junior even to Greville, Adam Karim’s truculent Fortnum after spraying a little impertinence (he’s particularly good at studied insolence) is soon off for easier work: founding a grocer’s in Piccadilly. Perhaps Jessica Temple’s affecting Papandiek might make a partnership it’s suggested. Papandiek’s more downcast, more emotionally invested in the king and his recovery than even Greville or the more practical Braun, Billy Postlthwaite’s alacritous and quick-witted footman. It’s he who gives us some of the most memorable lines.
Bennett traces recovery through guying medicine and politics together. The urine’s changed colour. ‘Look at his piss. We’re back to lemonade…. Piss the Elder! Piss the Younger!’ Braun labels them to sentimental Papandiek. As a summary take on a change of power, it’s not been bettered.
There’s much meditation on sanity packed here, with the king in or out of his mind and body. The finale Bennett originally planned then discarded as untheatrical points one moral. Typically though Bennett inserts it into his introduction as a destablising option. Addressing the audience George III asserts after a role-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 also broadcast in 2018, 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 following George Floyd’s murder, inhuman leadership and our own leader near death yet ultimately ungrateful to the NHS (‘to be kind does not commend you to kings’), this magnificent revival with Gattiss poses even more urgent questions than it did in 2018 or with his superb predecessors: Nigel Hawthorne, who created the role, and David Haig. And it’s a twitch on the thread for all of us.