The Madness of King George III

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III,  UK, 2018.  Starring Mark Gatiss, Adrian Scarborough, Deborah Gillett, David Hounslow, Nicholas Bishop, Stephanie Jacobs, Louise Jameson. Directed by Adam Penford. 135 minutes. Rated PG (Adult themes)

The longest-reigning King of England prior to Queen Victoria was George III, from the house of Hanover, who ruled from 1760 to 1820, 60 years. He is famous for having been the reigning monarch who lost the American War of Independence. He was also King for the explorations of Captain Cook in the Pacific as well as the sending of the First Fleet.

But, he suffered episodes which were interpreted as madness. His son George, the Prince Regent, later to be George IV, was in waiting to be proclaimed in his father’s stead.

Alan Bennett, celebrated British playwright (Lady in the Van, The History Boys) became interested in the story in the early 1990s, the nature of mental illness, the relevance to the royal family, the Prince of Wales in waiting to ascend the throne… His play was very successful, being transferred to film in 1994 with Nigel Hawthorne as the king and Helen Mirren as the queen.

This is a filmed version of the play, performed in the Nottingham Playhouse. It is a play full of movement, many scenes, continual motion of the characters, elaborate scene changes, a re-creation of private episodes, the medical treatment (mistreatment in many cases) of the king, the political background and machinations of parliament and the crown.

For those not familiar with the characters and with their history, this is an interesting opportunity to learn as well as to encourage further research.

George III is played by actor-writer, Mark Gatiss, well-known for theatrical performances as well as roles in film and television, including his portrayal of Mycroft Holmes in the television series, Sherlock, which he co-created and for which he wrote a number of screenplays, as well as appearing as Lord Cecil in the television series, Gunpowder. His performance is a tour de force, especially his having to perform the episodes of madness, the medical torture, his confused mental state and ways of communication. One believes, in watching Gatiss as the king, that he is actually experiencing the pain, the torture and madness.

Adrian Scarborough leads the supporting cast as the parson turned Dr Willis, who has his own asylum on a farm in Lincolnshire, taking over the management of the king, trying to master him and command him into subjection and cure (which he achieves), clashing with the bevy of doctors who are intent on their own particular methods, of blistering the legs and the scalp to bring out the poisons, a variety of medications, of examining the kings stools and urine. (In fact, there are many satirical lines on this kind of medical quackery.)

Interestingly, the three main doctors, the quacks, played by female actors, female actors also taking rolls of servants, political advisers, and even of Charles Fox, the Whig leader in the Parliament. Fox wants power despite his overt democratic declarations. In contrast, there is William Pitt the Younger, staving off Parliamentary votes about the king’s madness and the taking over of George as the Regent, a dour man, whose own father had experienced madness. There is also the manipulative Lord Chancellor, Thurlow, changing sides, feathering his own political nest.

There is a sympathetic portrait of Queen Charlotte, Deborah Gillett.

Alan Bennett is always an articulate playwright often with a sense of ironic humour. This is to the fore in this production. It is an opportunity to appreciate Bennett’s theatrical talent, to see quality performances, especially that of Mark Gatiss, and to delve into this 18th-century experience of the British monarchy.

Sharmill                Released December 6th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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