Through October 15
THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III Shaw Festival/Royal George Theatre
By Augustine Warner
It’s not unusual for the ruler of a country to be derogated as “mad,” a word we’re not supposed to use these days, to be replaced by “mentally ill” or “disturbed.”
King George III had something truly wrong with him and two centuries after his death, we don’t know what was wrong with the king.
I still like porphyria, the blue urine disease, as the cause of the illness of a man born to the purple.
It’s debated to this day what was wrong.
No one argues the king went mentally bad and that’s what Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III” is about, at least a segment of the time when “Farmer” George went from popular favorite to catatonic and back, a strong production dominated by Tom McCamus’ George III.
Combined with a Prince of Wales who wants to spend money, lots of money to enjoy being a prince, Britain’s government was in chaos.
The king was on one side and the fun-loving “Prinny” was on the other and if the prince became Prince-Regent, Charles James Fox was likely to be prime minister instead of Pitt
While the story is more of less true, it says bad things about the political structure of the day, a time when the king had real power and the alliance of royal power and aristocratic power ran the country.
Social unrest simmered.
Fox (Jim Mezon) was the great radical of the day, from his support for the American side in the Revolution to his support for Catholic emancipation to seeking an end to the slave trade.
He hated George III for denying him supreme power.
The king supported William Pitt the Younger (André Sills) and put him in power and kept him there as the prime minister kept the country financially viable and able to fight the great existential war with the French revolutionaries and Napoleon.
George III didn’t trust the Prince of Wales (Martin Happer) and knew that if Pitt fell politically, Fox would come to power.
All of this is the background for a gamboling, cavorting, mentally lost king, as Parliament argued about what to do.
Because of the fight between supporters of Pitt and the supporters of Fox, it mattered who named the prime minister and ran the country.
The king fell into the hands of doctors who had no idea what to do and didn’t really understand mental illness but were perfectly willing to charge large amounts of money to treat him.
Obviously, Bennett is taking the known events of the time and building around them to create this play.
The treatments for the king were just awful, from bizarre medications to drawing blood to blistering his skin.
This was a man who actually had some ideas about his country and his people and apparently had a loving relationship with his wife, Queen Charlotte (Chick Reid), although not with his heir.
Director Kevin Bennett was clearly working within a tight budget, with the limited number of seats in the Royal George limiting the financial returns of a large cast show.
He does a lot of double casting in a color-blind cast show, leading to the use of hats by costume designer Christopher David Gauthier, so that a performer like Sills will switch hats to switch from Pitt to Dr. Warren.
It can be very confusing because this very long show moves along very quickly and the hats bounce back and forth.
The show takes place on the Royal George stage, a stage compressed here to allow two levels of seats right on stage with the audience looking cast members right in the eye.
Of course, that can be so tight that in one scene a character crunches up a daily bulletin and tosses it away and, on the night I saw the show, right into the face of one of those on-stage ticket buyers.
Designer Ken MacDonald’s set allows moments of farce in the actions speeding on and off stage, especially lustful maneuvering for power.
It’s all held together by McCamus’ masterful performance.
There are some strong smaller roles, like Happer’s capering and overdressed Prince of Wales, Mezon’s Fox, Rebecca Gibian’s Greville and Cameron Grant’s Fitzroy, Patrick McManus clergyman turned enlightened (for the day) treater of the mentally ill and Marci T. House’s scheming Lord Chancellor.
The one major difficulty with Bennett’s story is that most of us have no idea who these people are, although the playwright certainly does.
That means you have to sit for nearly three-hours and just let the action wash over you and not worry that much about who all of these people are because this is a play, not one of my college history classes.
You can figure out the king and queen, the heir prince, Pitt and Fox and don’t worry about the rest because you will miss what’s going on if you spend lots of time figuring out who is who on the stage.
Go with the flow and see “The Madness of George III.”
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