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Review: Little method to The Madness of George III at The Shaw Festival

Tom McCamus as George III and Chick Reid as Queen Charlotte with the cast of The Madness of George III.

David Cooper

1.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Madness of George III
Written by
Alan Bennett
Genre
Play
Directed by
Kevin Bennett
Actors
Tom McCamus
Comapany
Shaw Festival
Venue
Royal George Theatre
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake
Year
2017
Runs Until
Sunday, October 15, 2017

In a note that prefaces all of the programs this season, the Shaw Festival's new artistic director, Tim Carroll, puts forth the idea that directors are generally either mechanics (who solve problems so that the machine works) or gardeners (who create the conditions in which something can grow); what he would like to see at his theatre company in flower-filled Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., he writes, are horticulturalists.

The Shaw Festival's new production of The Madness of George III illustrates the perils of this philosophy, however. Or at least, that its director, Shaw newcomer Kevin Bennett, is lacking in the green thumb necessary for the approach to result in blooms.

British playwright Alan Bennett's 1991 play, already showing its age though not yet 30 years old, concerns King George III (Tom McCamus) during the first of his bouts of what were deemed "madness" in 1788.

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The King's condition sparks a constitutional crisis of sorts. Tory prime minister William Pitt (André Sills) knows that if power is transferred to the King's son, the Prince of Wales (Martin Happer, his character immediately undercut by ridiculous costuming), he will soon get the heave-ho in favour of the Whig Charles James Fox (Jim Mezon).

And so, King George receives treatment from a series of doctors sent from competing camps – a trio of fools (Sills and Mezon again, plus Marci T. House) obsessed with purgatives and blistering and getting paid; and a clergyman turned specialist named Dr. Willis (Patrick McManus) whose methods seem hardly more humane, but who is genuinely seeking a cure.

Why anyone would want to watch a parade of stool and urine samples and on-stage tortures is a little lost on me. (Though credit where it's due: Someone among the designers and craftspeople at the Shaw Festival has produced a fine fake turd.)

Indeed, it's hard to really understand why we should care whether the King recovers or not despite McCamus giving a charmingly eccentric performance at the start. The politics of the period are distilled down to the irony of George losing his American colonies and then his mind – and a couple of quick speeches about Tories liking to save money, and Whigs liking to spend it and an offhand reference to the slave trade.

But perhaps Bennett's play is more compelling in a production that is less frivolously farcical, with fewer unfettered performances. Here we get lots of actors playing multiple roles in a single scene, switching hats and whatnot ad nauseam, an awful lot of unrooted clowning and unfunny schmacting.

Bennett, the director, has had the idea to stage The Madness of George III as if we were all at a Georgian theatre in the 18th century – with box seats on either side of the stage constricting the already rather small playing area of the Royal George Theatre (built in 1915 and a couple of King Georges later).

The actors are up there getting into costume when you arrive and chit-chatting with the audience – and they continue to direct much of their dialogue directly at patrons throughout.

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Anyone who saw Carroll's "original practices" productions of Shakespeare that transferred from the Globe Theatre in London to an indoor theatre on Broadway a few years back will wonder if those are the real inspiration for Bennett's production here, and what ruler is truly being flattered by this production.

I'm not a huge fan of having theatre spaces play dress-up as other theatre spaces – or imposing (an idea of) an old style of playing on a contemporary play. In any case, the freneticism here seems a poor match for Bennett's dry wit; and while there's a lot of eye contact, there's little connection with the audience.

McCamus is indeed a force, cursing and rambling amid all the poking and prodding that George suffers. He gives a nuanced performance, too, when you can make it out – for instance, in the second act, when he recovers and does a little King Lear.

A couple young actors make a mark – Rebecca Gibian as a sympathetic Equerry to the King, and Andrew Lawrie as a sparky Scottish member of the House of Commons. But a couple of the old veterans look like they wish they were in a different production, especially at the end when required to jig through the curtain call.

To a certain degree, I would argue that comedy requires a mechanic – it's all the timing, as they say, whether we're talking pratfalls or zingers. The Madness of George III is an example of how exhausting one can be when left to sprout spontaneously – two hours and 45 minutes of untamed growth with what could be a fine rose of a performance at its centre completely hidden by the vines.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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