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The Madness of George III

Miles Anderson steps assuredly into the late Nigel Hawthorne's signature role.

With:
George III - Miles Anderson Queen Charlotte - Emily Swallow William Pitt - Jay Whittaker Prince of Wales - Andrew Dahl Greville - Ben Diskant

To celebrate our nation’s independence, the Old Globe’s outdoor summer season looks back at the real estate’s former lessor in Alan Bennett’s witty, suspenseful “The Madness of George III.” Miles Anderson steps assuredly into the late Nigel Hawthorne’s signature role in a pageant helmed smartly — at times too smartly, but always excitingly — by one-time RSC head Adrian Noble.

A 1994 pic version clicked on the arthouse circuit, but Bennett’s legit text has seldom appeared on this side of the pond. The explanation partly lies in budgetary considerations — and the Globe has seemingly handed costume designer Deirdre Clancy its PIN number, so lavishly detailed are the accoutrements — but mostly in America’s allegedly limited interest in the details of its founding. (The screen retitling was “The Madness of King George,” lest the U.S. market turn its back on a Roman-numeraled sequel.)

Undeterred, Noble never underestimates his audience’s willingness or ability to follow the complex, multilevel affairs of a long-ago state. Both the personal drama of a mysteriously ailing monarch at the mercy of ignorant physicians, and the illness’ political ramifications threatening to bring down a government, are lucidly played out. Nearly three hours fly by in a rush of delicious plotting and tart dialogue.

Anderson’s turn is the production’s anchor. Having established the king as a preening know-all whose authority is unquestioned — and that unfortunate colonial business a decade ago is not to be mentioned, he thanks you — Anderson brings him down by inches, Lear-like, into a gibbering wreck engaging our active sympathy. Even the rabidest opponents of inherited monarchy will be moved to pity as he’s prodded and tortured by meddling medicos, who use everything but science to effect a cure.

As Anderson turns each appearance into another stunning transformation, the forces besetting him are drawn in bold, compelling strokes. Jay Whittaker, Charles Janasz and Craig Dudley keep the stakes high as the Tories in power, while Andrew Dahl’s corpulent, corrupt Prince of Wales scratches at the throne room door (along with Grayson DeJesus’ hilarious cameo of a boobish office seeker). Against Joseph Marcell, Bruce Turk and Adrian Sparks’ sinister medical team, we welcome Ben Diskant’s self-sacrificing aide-de-camp.

Noble’s sole miscalculation is the sharply timed opening and slamming of designer Ralph Funicello’s eight Mylar-treated doors to transition between scenes, a tiresomely self-conscious device eventually serving to undercut the mood. (It’s difficult to appreciate a government’s falling apart when its courtiers are every bit as crisply efficient in the depths of crisis.) Probably the blocking, too, could more profitably move from ritual formality to disorder, to parallel the disintegrating national health.

But any sameness in movement patterns is offset by the use of the entire playhouse to envelop us in the pageantry and intrigue. A rare entertainment, indeed.

Along with a “Taming of the Shrew,” “George” runs in rep all summer with Noble’s staging of the thematically linked “King Lear.” Comic hay is made at the expense of its star Robert Foxworth, who on alternate nights tears his Britain apart while here, as the King’s most implacable medical attendant, he endeavors to keep it whole.

The Madness of George III

Lowell Davies Festival Theater, San Diego; 612 seats; $78 top

Production: An Old Globe presentation of a play in two acts by Alan Bennett. Directed by Adrian Noble.

Creative: Sets, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Deirdre Clancy; lighting, Alan Burrett; sound, Christopher R. Walker; original music, Shaun Davey, Walker; fight direction, Steve Rankin; stage manager, James Latus. Opened, reviewed July 3, 2010. Runs through Sept. 24. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast: George III - Miles Anderson Queen Charlotte - Emily Swallow William Pitt - Jay Whittaker Prince of Wales - Andrew Dahl Greville - Ben DiskantWith: Michael Stewart Allen, Shirine Babb, Donald Carrier, Grayson DeJesus, Craig Dudley, Christian Durso, Robert Foxworth, Catherine Gowl, Kevin Hoffmann, Andrew Hutcheson, Charles Janasz, Joseph Marcell, Stephen Marzolf, Jordan McArthur, Brooke Novak, Aubrey Severino, Ryman Sneed, Adrian Sparks, Bruce Turk, Bree Welch.

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