Reviewed by James Karas
The Madness of George III, Alan Bennett’s 1991 play, has some 27 characters not including footmen, courtiers, Members of Parliament and assistants. The mentally ill King George III dominates the play and the horde of other characters go on and off the stage in quick succession that at times makes it difficult to follow the plot in detail.
Director Kevin Bennett has reduced the number of roles to 23, excluding footmen and walk-on parts and has a dozen actors play all the parts. It does not help in following the fast paced action. Bennett has made a few other unhelpful changes. The role of Greville, the King’s male equerry is assigned to Rebecca Gibian. The roles of Edward Thurlow and Sir Lucas Pepys are given to Marci T. House. Burke and Braun, both male roles, are given to Lisa Berry who also plays Lady Pembroke. Most of the other actors take two or three roles which does not add to clarity.
Tom McCamus as George III with the cast of The Madness of George III. Photo by David Cooper.
Ken MacDonald has designed a pretty set in the small Royal George Theatre. It looks almost like a miniature set with two tiers of seats for members of the audience on each side. I am not sure why Kevin Bennett decided to put audience members on stage and even less so when the actors interact with them.
As I said, the play is dominated by King George III and Tom McCamus gives a bravura performance in the role. He goes from incredible arrogance to being tied up in a chair and humiliated by his doctors. Both ends of the spectrum are shocking. The King considers himself as only short of divine and his treatment of others is utterly contemptuous. No one is allowed to address him directly and they must walk backwards when leaving his presence. It is a pretty disgusting picture of unrestrained arrogance.
As his mental illness deteriorates, the King comes under the mercy of a number of quacks who proceed to treat him with the best medical care of the era. Bleeding, examining his stool and pulse for reliable indicators of his health, restraining with an iron crown around his head and tying him up with belts around his wrists and legs are a few examples of first rate medical care of the day. Emetics, purgation, blistering and no doubt some remedies that I did not catch are also included. It is all a horrific sight.
All of this is handled by McCamus with consummate skill. He blusters, he babbles, he screams in agony and yells in arrogance and he is tortured to the point of appearing like a Christ figure but without any humility.
Martin Happer is the foppish, hateful and scheming Prince of Wales who wants to push his father aside and be appointed Regent. André Sills is the self-assured Pitt and the foolish Dr. Warren.
Chick Reid as Queen Charlotte and Tom McCamus as George III with the cast of
The Madness of George III. Photo by David Cooper.
Chick Reid plays the loving but equally arrogant Queen Charlotte with Jim Mezon turning in a fine performance as Charles Fox and Dr. Baker.
The political forces are those of the government of Pitt poised against the opposition led by Charles Fox with the Prince of Wales as a catalyst.
Even more important in the play is the roles of the doctors, Willis and Nicholson played by Patrick McManus, Mezon as Dr. Baker and Sills as Dr. Warren. You can disagree and argue with politicians, but you cannot disagree with royalty or doctors. In The Madness of George III, doctors gain the upper hand and their treatment is so atrocious they almost humanize George III.
Unfortunately Kevin Bennett tried several ways to bring his view of the play but he met with very little success. The production needs more clarity and easier pacing so that we can keep up with action and less doubling up of roles.
The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett continues in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.