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The Madness of George 111 by Alan Bennett

Presented by Huntingdon Drama Club At the Commemoration Hall 21st to 24th April 2016

Crowning Achievement

The Madness of King George III is a 1991 by Alan Bennett originally staged the National Theatre with the late Nigel Hawthorne as George, and filmed two years later as the Madness of King George, with Hawthorne again as the King. It’s a the semi-fictionalised story of the crisis in 1788-1789 when George III suffered a bout of illness, starting with excruciating over sensitivity of the skin and progressing to near dementia. It’s not clear exactly what the condition was, it’s thought it might have been the hereditary metabolic disease porphyria, although it’s also been suggested it was arsenic poisoning –arsenic was used in various paints and pigments at the time.

George is portrayed as a man of the people, happily married (15 children!), more interested in agricultural improvement than affairs of state (he was nicknamed “Farmer George”), impatient of ceremony and mildly eccentric. America has just been lost, something which does disturb George, the French revolution is about to kick off, and there’s vicious fighting in parliament between the Tories, led by the King’s man William Pitt and the Whigs led by the radical Charles James Fox.  The King needs to look like a strong leader and be a figurehead for the nation, but his mind is disintegrating.

The play follows the breakdown of the King, the attempts by Pitt and his party to cover it up, the ambitions of Fox and the Whigs to seize control, with the support of George Prince of Wales, who really would like his father to pop off and let him take over. There’re also the attempts to cure the King: however late 18th century medicine was fairly basic and brutal, and the King’s doctors seem more concerned with their own positions, fees  and authority than the patient’s welfare.

Bennett’s play provides a picture of a man falling apart, with almost everyone around him more concerned about what it means for them rather than any concern for George.

It’s an ambitious play with a big cast and Huntingdon Drama Club tackle it with aplomb.

In the pivotal role of George III, Dean Laccohee captures the man from forthright, bluff and likable to tortured, ranting and haunted by his imaginings. There’re strong performance all round –  Les Roberts as an increasingly frazzled William Pitt, who has some sympathy for the King’s dilemma, but is more concerned about his own problems  as government grinds to a halt and his majority dwindles as MPs defect to the manipulative and opportunistic Fox, played by Jonathan Salt and Milton Travesty’s louche, feckless and scheming George Prince of  Wales.  Josephine Hussey captures the despair of Queen Charlotte, or Mrs King as George affectionately calls her, as her husband become increasingly disturbed, and she is separated from him by the doctors, including the heartless Dr Warren, played by Mike Pews, whose cure for everything is blistering, and as the Prince of Wales’s personal physician has an interest in the King not recovering.

There’s cross- casting with some of the men roles played by the Drama club’s female members. It works well with Michelle Gibson playing the pompous and self-important and fairly useless Sir George Baker  George III’s doctor who seems to blame the patient for not responded to his regimen of purging, emetics and bleeding.  Greville, the King’s equerry, one of the few sympathetic  characters is played confidently,  by Sarah Cornforth.

Alan Bennett’s, script gives a moving story about a man torn apart by illness and the expectations of others,  but being a Bennett play there’s a great deal of humour, sometimes rather black humour in it, and some very pointed satirical jabs at self-interested politicians and the arrogance of some physicians.

Director Mark Herbert kept the play moving across a very simple set hitting the right tone for every scene, and expertly deploying his large cast. The settings, Windsor, Kew, Carlton House, the Houses of Parliament flow into each other with back-projected captions and a few ionic items of furniture. These include the restraining chair where Willis, an unconventional clergyman turned Doctor of  Madness, played as a forceful, uncompromising, plain-speaking , countryman by James Row, has the King bound whenever he starts to ramble or rant, to teach the King to govern his mind; it’s the only treatment that even shows a hint of success.

The impressive costumes created by Johnathan Clift contribute enormously to the characterisations and the play’s atmosphere and sense of period.

A successful, engaging and ambitious production by Huntingdon Drama Club, of what’s arguably one of the best plays of the last century.

Tim Latham