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10 reasons to watch The Madness of King George III

10 reasons to watch The Madness of King George III

10 reasons to watch The Madness of King George III cover photo on Stagedoor
Written by one of Britain’s best-loved playwrights Alan Bennett (The History Boys, The Lady in the Van), this epic play was also adapted into a BAFTA Award-winning film following its premiere on stage in 1991.

1) The play proves that Alan Bennett is an ace history student.

It gets an A+ in that department as it traces the tragic story of the monarch who lost his mind, his dignity and the American colonies. Constitutional crises seldom make for great theatre, but this lively history lesson is full of insights and terrific lines. George III figures in another more recent theatrical hit, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton.

2) As Richard Eyre has observed about the play: “In some ways it’s an untypical play..."

"Bennett’s quirkiness is subdued, his liking for parody is reined in hard, the oddities of detail are suppressed. The plays great strength is that it rests on a highly theatrical calculation. Everyone knows that George III went mad. What nobody knows is that he went mad more than once: not just at the end of his life, but in the middle of it. And it’s this mid-life episode that forms the action.” Bennett himself put it more succinctly: “I’m always weak on plot and this was a ready-made plot.”

3) Poor George was suffering from porphyria, a metabolic condition not yet understood in the 18th century.

The condition caused purple urine, blisters and bouts of apparent madness interspersed with complete lucidity. It was a disease of the body not of the mind. The symptoms came and went. Which makes it all the more tragic. As he says poignantly at one point: “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me.”

4) This is more than middle-brow boulevard drama.

The point Bennett exploits so cleverly is that the entire edifice of court, government and country is based on an illusion: the danger lies not in the king’s madness, but in the revelation that the poor, shivering creature sitting blistered, bled, purged and wrapped in a straitjacket, is only a man after all. When at one point when he rallies, he says: “I have remembered how to seem.”

5) The role of George III is an epic one.

It has attracted some great actors and some remarkable performances from Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Pennington and David Haig. I’ve seen all of those performances and marvelled. I haven’t yet seen Mark Gatiss in the role, but he got splendid reviews and he has that impossible to pin down mix of sharpness and sweetness that should suit it admirably.

6) It is a reminder that theatre made in regional cities and in tiny rural arts centres is a thing in itself.

Most theatre is streamed out of London to the rest of the world. This is a production made at Nottingham Playhouse that was streamed live into cinemas and will now be seen by more audiences all over the world. Regional theatre is not a feeder or training ground for London, but it has a richness and complexity that not only serves local communities, but which seeps out and enriches other communities and other theatres all across the country.

7) Bennett admitted in an interview that he had always had “a soft spot” for the misunderstood George. His affection shows. He treats him with dignity.

Bennett had been working with Nick Hytner on The Wind in the Willows prior to The Madness of King George III which was only the second of the many projects on which they would eventually collaborate. There are moments when it feels as if The Wind in the Willows is trying to get into the play. George and his wife, who call each other Mr and Mrs King, could be furry creatures down by the riverbank. But it is never over-cosy, and some aspects of the play are sharply satirical.

8) Bennett may be a National Treasure, but he is also the most deceptive of writers.

He's not as cuddly as he seems. I love this bit from his diaries: “I am in the pigeonhole marked ‘no threat’ and were I to stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a Teddy bear.”

9) The other play that definitely seeps into Bennett’s drama, is Shakespeare’s King Lear, another play about a monarch who goes mad.

Bennett cunningly plays on the parallels to maximum dramatic and emotional effect.

10) Most playwrights when they complete a play send it out to theatres via their agents. Bennett pops his plays through Nick Hytner’s letterbox.

They never come fully formed, and apparently take quite a bit of deciphering, with bits scrawled and cut and pasted. But the deciphering has paid dividends, most notably with The History Boys.

You can watch The Madness of King George III here live this evening (11 June) @7pm or on demand for a week.

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Written by

Lyn Gardner

New tips and reviews every week. If you're looking for innovative theatre, you've come to the right place.
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