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Theatre Review: The Madness of George III

Emily Mellows discusses the merits and problems of Bennett’s thought-provoking play.

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Image Credit: National Theatre, 2020

Alan Bennett’s The Madness of  George III at first appears an odd selection for the National Theatre’s At Home collection. Many of the other productions selected to be made available to the public have had a more mainstream appeal. Unlike A Midsummer Night's Dream or Jane Eyre, The Madness of  George III  is a less renowned play, one that generally wouldn’t appeal to the younger audience that the National Theatre has spent years attempting to engage.  However, much like the production of Frankenstein featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, audiences will likely be drawn in by the inclusion of  Sherlock star Mark Gatiss  in the titular role.

One failing of the production is that it begins incredibly slowly, taking some  time to establish the characters and the complex power dynamics of the play. Nevertheless, this is understandable: in order to comprehend the depth of King George’s descent into madness, the audience first has to view him in full health.  Whilst a live audience who have paid  to see the production may tolerate the show’s slow beginning, families at home watching on YouTube are less inclined to tough it out. This further throws into question the show’s suitability for the Stay At Home format.

Much like literature throughout history, The Madness of  George III  paints madness as a kind of grotesque performance. King George performs madness, driven by an unconscious desire to escape the restrictions and constraints of Kingship. Adam Penford, the director of the production, claimed that this presentation of madness was heavily based on Alan Bennett’s extensive historical research into the life of the real King George III, who suffered from mental health problems throughout his later years. Penford notes that despite  being ‘quite a spontaneous person’ as a young man, King George’s tutoring in preparation to becoming the monarch involved him being taught to be ‘much more disciplined and rigid’.  Penford further theorizes that ‘perhaps the mental breakdown came from years of repression’. The only thing King George has to do in this production in order to be restored to full health is to reject the freedom afforded to him by his madness, as is symbolised by his rejection of the straight jacket at the show’s climax.

Bennett’s presentation of mental illness as something one can discard as easily as one discards an item of clothing is evidentially very problematic. Mental health issues and madness are presented as a choice, a way for a man to indulge in a lifetime of impulses and desires suppressed in the name of duty. At the play’s climax, the King has difficulties with movement and severe problems communicating; by its conclusion, he is completely restored to health, purely because he decides he doesn’t want to be mad anymore. Anyone who has suffered, directly or indirectly, from mental health issues may be slightly offended by the implications made by the play.

Despite its problems, The Madness of George III masterfully portrays the historic mistreatment of mentally ill  people. Throughout the play the King is separated from his family members, manipulated by those eager to use his ill health as a means of obtaining wealth and power. He is also subject to various treatments akin to medieval torture. Doctors, friends and family members positively relish holding power over the King, destroying, babying and belittling him in order to feed their own egos.

At the play’s conclusion, the King very quickly punishes and reclaims his power from those who take advantage of his condition. King George’s justice against his son and physicians could have been drawn out longer, but the play understandably ends quite swiftly after the King is returned to his throne and his sanity.  Throughout his illness, King George is presented as astonishingly intelligent, self-aware and funny. In the midst of his ramblings, he plays with language, discusses philosophy and cleverly mocks the grotesque characters that dance around him. He is still brilliant, perhaps even more brilliant in his moments of madness. In madness King George loses his throne, but also loses the terrible emotional and intellectual constraints that kingship has placed upon him.

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