Thank God that we don’t live in an era where heads of state do and say insane things and their position just lets them get away with it. Cos that’s the proposition in Alan Bennett’s fascinating historical comedy-drama ‘The Madness of George III’, the next production in the National Theatre at Home series of free streaming plays. ‘Sherlock’ writer and ‘League of Gentleman’ star Mark Gatiss portrays the eighteenth-century English king in a Nottingham Playhouse production from 2018.
Only it’s not exactly the proposition. As George III’s mental health deteriorates in the 1780s, his family, his court and his country are put in an impossible position. The king, the most powerful man in the country and the head of church and state, is clearly not behaving normally, but what can you do? You can’t replace him. You can only hide him so much. You certainly can’t tell him to just pull himself together. Bennett’s play may have a historical context, but the issues it deals with are universal and personal, possibly even more so right now.
Gatiss’s performance was pretty rapturously received (Time Out didn’t review it, cos it was in Nottingham). The Stage said: ‘Gatiss captures the king’s bewilderment and agony as he comes to realise he is no longer able to trust his mind, nor his mouth, nor those around him. His performance is a very physical one. He makes the most of his height, stalking the stage, splay-toed, as he conveys the king’s rapid decline. He ends up shaven-pated and wrapped in a black, fur-trimmed coat, looking like a broken Count Orlok. But he is also very affecting in his moments of lucidity – “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me” – poignant and vulnerable.’
Many reviewers commented favourably on how different Gatiss’s interpretation of the role was compared to that of Nigel Hawthorne in the 1994 film ‘The Madness of King George’ (the title was supposedly changed because America). Perhaps it was the benefit of 15 years’ better understanding of mental health, perhaps just a more personal response to the character. Either way, Gatiss is perhaps surprisingly excellent given that he’s not that well known as an actor. If you’re starting to climb the walls, or just don’t see what’s wrong in running about the place in your undies, tune in tonight.
‘The Madness of George III’ streams at 7pm BST tonight (Thu Jun 11) on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel for free. It’s available for one week.
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