REVIEWED BY: MANDA LIM
Women are to the fore in ADAM PENFORD’s production of this 1991 play by ALAN BENNETT. Obviously like everyone else they come second to King George himself but there are seven women in a cast of seventeen. Not bad for a play written with just two female characters.
This was my first Alan Bennett play and I am happy to say it was not what I expected from an Alan Bennett play. Sorry Al, my bad. It is really funny for a start. It races along full of plots and schemes and at the centre of it is a surprisingly moving narrative.
It tells the story of George III’s first health crisis when he is evidently suffering from a mental illness that has physical symptoms. In those days if the King was found not well enough to rule it could bring down the government too. Making the Prince of Wales Regent in his place would mean a new Prime Minister and a cabinet full of the Prince’s cronies.
So there are powerplays unfolding all over the place in this play. Struggles of rule, both monarchical and party political. Then there is the competition among doctors and courtiers about who gets to treat His Majesty, and how.
The three doctors on the palace payroll are all men but played by women. There’s Dr Warren played by LOUISE JAMESON who gets the biggest laughs of the night. On duty she is stern as a heron but among her fellow doctors she becomes a bragging windbag. It’s a great transformation. Her answer to everything is to burn blisters all over the King’s head and body.
There’s an overacting doctor too and then there is the mournful Dr Pepys (AMANDA HADINGUE) who scuttles about obsessing over what poor old George produces on the toilet. They are all more interested in their fees and their professional reputations than they are with the well-being of their patient!
Only one character, Queen Charlotte, seems to care about the King as a person and she is hardly ever allowed to see him. This hurts because we have seen them being a sweet old couple before the mystery ailment took hold. But then the forthright Dr Willis from Lincolnshire appears claiming he can cure the King. Willis is way ahead of his time in many of his ideas and ADRIAN SCARBOROUGH creates a rounded and believable character.
Willis has to battle the established protocols and their guardians as well as those who would rather the King didn’t recover. Then there is His uncooperative Majesty himself of course. The relationship of grudging respect the two men eventually forge is one of this play’s highlights.
Another highlight is the design work of ROBERT JONES. His chambers and Palladian palace settings move and change like kaleidoscope patterns, all in stately greys and duck egg blue. It is most atmospheric and sometimes tiring to watch the cast swinging it all into place. RICHARD HOWELL’s lighting adds to the atmosphere and helps to make clear when and where each scene is taking place.
DEBRA GILLETT makes a memorable ‘Mrs King’. Her instinct is to love her husband with unquestioning devotion but his illness and the rules of the day leave her frustrated and helpless. WILF SCOLDING plays the spoiled lazy Prince of Wales like Kevin the Teenager complete with ratty red thatch. It’s perfect. Between him and the bare stupidity of his younger brother (HARRY KERSHAW) you despair at what the next generation will bring.
Another great performance is NICHOLAS BISHOP’s Prime Minister Pitt, a man so reserved he is almost robotic! He is well matched by Amanda Hadingue (again!) playing his arch rival Fox who lives up to her name with sly cunning. NADIA ALBINA makes an excellent loyal Fitzroy.
It’s not all good news because there are times when some of the humour doesn’t work. A joke about Fortnum & Mason is repeated several times when it wasn’t funny to begin with, and having two of the doctors burst in to treat the King wearing fancy dress out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels awkwardly misjudged. Mostly though this is a play written with deceptive depth and a great feeling for language.
I’ve been saving MARK GATISS for last. His is a magical performance. Kingly and charming at first, it is hard to remember that this was a man who ruled over an empire of slavery.
His slide into illness is horrifying to watch. There are physical tics and seizures, there are foulmouthed rages and inappropriate sexual fantasies muttered out loud. You are always on his side though because even at the King’s most extreme Gatiss makes him as vulnerable and appealing as a baby. He keeps his big left toe turned up like the corner of a page for what feels like hours and that is just one of the physical twists he puts himself through to play the character.
There’s one moment when George responds as Zadok The Priest begins playing that provokes shivers and a pricking at the tear ducts, even for a committed republican like me. It’s a high point in the director’s work as well as the star’s and it has the effect it does because the writer has taken such care to present these characters as fallible and believable human beings.
Politics has changed a little since the 18th Century, medicine and monarchy have changed a lot but the complex nature of people carries on as ever.
Written by: Alan Bennett
Directed by: Adam Penford
Nadia Albina (Fitzroy)
Nicholas Bishop (William Pitt)
Mark Gatiss (George III)
Debra Gillett (Queen Charlotte)
Amanda Hadingue (Fox/Dr Pepys)
Jack Holden (Greville)
David Hounslow (Thurlow)
Stephanie Jacob (Sheridan/Dr Baker)
Louise Jameson (Dr Warren)
Andrew Joshi (Dundas)
Adam Karim (Fortnum)
Harry Kershaw (Duke of York)
Billy Postlethwaite (Schultz)
Sara Powell (Lady Pembroke)
Adrian Scarborough (Dr Willis)
Wilf Scolding (Prince of Wales)
Jessica Temple (Papandiek)