BWW Review: THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III at SHAW FESTIVAL
Mental illness in the 18th Century, aka madness, was as in some respects as poorly understood and accepted then as it is today. Being a monarch would imply that the best care would be at your disposal, but when the malady is unknown, even King George III of England suffered with the illness and often moreso with the treatment.
Alan Bennett's 1991 play THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III is being given a lavishly detailed production at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake. George may be best known as the monarch who lost control of the American colonies in 1776, but he was dealt a worse fate, suffering from Acute Intermittent Porphyria. This disease, which was uncharted at the time, caused periods of confusion, psychosis with unintelligible speech, horrible abdominal pain and itchiness. His production of a blue colored urine was the first medical sign that something was amiss with the King.
Director Kevin Bennett moves the evening along swiftly, but at the times the complexity of the dialogue as well as the various accents and dialects made the long first act a challenge. Mr. Bennett novelly chose to have the actors interact with the audience before each of the two acts. Subtle lighting changes make you unaware that the play begins with full house lights up, but then slowly dim as the action melds from off stage to onstage. Set designer Ken MacDonald has created an ingenious unit set that cleverly mirrors the actual interior of the Royal George Theatre. Box seats have been built on either side of the playing area, where actual theatre goers are seated. This brings an immediacy to the play, allowing these audience members to be embedded in the action, giving them a few bits of business to complete the staging.
Tom McCamus is giving an awe inspiring performance as the King George III. This complicated character must become mad before our very eyes and McCamus manages to do so with endearing charm, while his medical condition overtakes his mental and physical capabilities. He is reduced to being stripped, bled, near tortured by cupping, and physically restrained, all in attempts to "heal" him. McCamus imbues George with an inherent humor that sneaks in, even in the most unlikely times. In a rare moment of lucency when George decides to enact a scene from King Lear we see McCamus' inner brilliance, full of calm nuances.
Chick Reid is the petite Queen Charlotte, who George endearingly calls "Mrs. King." Ms. Reid is mild mannered and regal as the ever subservient monarch, who was essentially banned from seeing her husband during the majority of his illness, but remains faithful to a fault. Martin Happer is the foppishly overweight Prince Of Wales. This juicy character is next in line to the throne and hopes to be the Regent, essentially usurping the king's power due to his illness. His frustration at getting Parliament's approval for Regency is palpable as he tells us that being heir to the throne is a predicament, not a position. Mr. Happer, made up as a caricature of a bratty heir, finds all the right comic notes in this unlikable and pouty Prince.
The large cast is called on to play multiple roles, up to 3 each over the course of the evening. Through quick costume changes, often in full view, the ensemble does yeoman's work. The quartet of doctors played by Patrick McManus, Jim Mezon, Marci T. House and Andre Sills are a bumbling group. While one may want to bleed the patient, one wants to sweat out his bad humors, and others believe the key to his illness is found in daily on stage examinations of his urine and stool. The social commentary of the practice of medicine is eerily timely. Discussions on specializing vs general medicine got the laughs they deserved, while the sad lack of practical medical knowledge shows how utterly barbaric the doctors treatments were. What was diagnosed as mental illness, more often than not was a misunderstood medical condition.
The dazzling and intricate costumes by Christopher David Gauthier were sumptuous. His bold color palate lit up the stage, especially in the most formal costumes during regal processions. THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III fits in perfectly with the Shaw Festival season thus far, especially with the current fascination with all things royal. It's high marks for acting, as well as creative staging, bode well for the future of the company under the helm on new Artistic Director Tim Carroll
THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III, presented at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake, plays at the Royal George Theatre through October 15, 2017. Contact Shawfest.com for further information.