Few plays and productions have ever owed quite so much to their leading man as the National Theater’s production of Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III” owes to Nigel Hawthorne. His performance in Bennett’s revisionist history isthe crucial element that brings it to life.
Without such a performance — a masterful blend of integrity, compassion, humor and completely controlled and submerged technique –“Madness” would barely exist.
Although “Madness” includes supporting roles played by 22 other actors, Bennett has given none of them the robust dimensions he’s lavished so sympathetically on his George III. It may of course be part of Bennett’s point that, though apparently gone mad, George is the one real character in his play. But the other characters’ lack of dimension does inhibit and stilt it, and it sometimes unfolds like a schoolroom history lesson. Yet throughout, Hawthorne, who won a Tony for his performance in “Shadowlands,” pours his all into George III. When he’s not onstage, which isn’t often, the temperature of play and production drops noticeably.
Bennett has revised the play since its premiere at the National’s Lyttelton Theater in London in November 1991. A scene has been dropped that flashed forward from 1788-89 to reveal a recent medical theory that the king’s “madness” was actually a symptom of the metabolic disorder porphyria. The play seems to need it, since Bennett presents such a personal as well as revisionist view of the monarch who has been remembered almost solely for having lost both the American colonies and his mind.
The current production has been substantially recast from the 1991 original, and was polished for the nine-week U.S. tour by being returned to the Lyttelton repertory in July (it will return again when the tour ends).
Hawthorne, of course, remains. And so does Julian Wadham as a complete cold-fish of a Pitt (a singularly deft performance).
Elsewhere, however, the cast is not an improvement on the original. Several performers are difficult to hear, including Selina Cadell as Queen Charlotte, though she has the excuse of having to assume a Germanic accent. Nick Sampson is far too campy as the Prince of Wales. Heaven only knows what Richenda Carey thinks she’s doing as the Queen’s lady-in-waiting. And Adam Barker’s Ramsden is too much of a total boob as a country bumpkin.
On the other hand, Jeffry Wickham is splendidly bluff and strong as the Lord Chancellor, never better than when playing Cordelia to George III’s Lear in a scene from “King Lear” that, nevertheless, is too obvious a parallel to George’s own plight. And Julian Rhind-Tutt paints a disarmingly reticent little cameo of the weak-minded Duke of York.
Mark Thompson’s physical production — primarily a stagewide flight of stairs enclosed by a gold frame — has a welcome uncluttered quality, though his costumes and the production’s wigs are sometimes overly caricatured, hobbling their wearers. Comparatively few props are used, a notable exception being a parade of chamber pots bearing the King’s stools and purple urine, symptoms of both the royal illness and of Bennett’s penchant for English schoolboy bathroom humor. The tour lighting needed cleaning up at the Sept. 14 performance (the use of footlights is a nice touch).
Nicholas Hytner’s direction has a rich theatricality to it, as one would expect from the man who directed “Miss Saigon.”