George III, King of England during the American and French Revolutions, father of fifteen, husband to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, God-fearing Protestant and admirer of Handel, went mad in 1788. His sudden derangement sparked off the Regency crisis, as the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister struggled for control over Parliament.
Monarchs and madness make great theater – just ask Shakespeare – and so, it turns out, do eighteenth century politics. Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III” more than once tips its hat to “King Lear,” but its abundant pleasures are those of the very best kind of history lesson. The play offers windows into the medicine, politics, and fashion of the 1780s; into the aftermath of the American Revolution in Britain; into the privileges and peculiar deprivations of the royal family.
Reader, I do not really like history lessons, but I loved this play. Bennett is a remarkable writer: generous to his characters, but unsentimental; a brilliant stylist, but never self-indulgent. And the entire cast delivers strong performances, from the near-wordless nincompoop Ramsden Skrymshir (Jonathan Hicks) to the beleaguered William Pitt (Nathan Hosner) to the shrewd, brave Queen (Ora Jones) and the King himself (Harry Groener, in a magnificent performance). Under Penny Metropulos’s unerring direction, the spectacle unfolds seamlessly. Special mention should go to Susan E. Mickey’s rich, period-specific costumes and to Eva Breneman’s dialect coaching; the subtlety and variety of regional British accents on display is a minor theatrical miracle.
At nearly three hours, the play keeps things exciting by refusing to linger on any single emotional note. The exquisitely foppish Prince of Wales (Richard Baird) and his toadyish little brother (Alex Weisman) provide comic relief. The intimacy between the king and queen laces inflects the political story with domestic tenderness and pain. Most memorable, perhaps, are the scenes of treatment, in which a team of doctors inflict horrible and at times horribly funny treatments on the king. The most lasting image of the play is of the king restrained, reduced by his disease and his doctors to the helplessness of an infant.