G. Bernard Shaw, for whom the Shaw Festival is named and dedicated, wrote in “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” “Kings are not born, they are made by artificial hallucination.”
He may well have been thinking of George III, the central figure in Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III,” which is now in production at the Shaw Festival.
The play is a fictionalized biographical study of the latter half of the reign of George III. Yes, that George, the one against whom the colonists rebelled, the one who was known as “The Mad George” because of his eccentric behavior, the one who found himself in odds with his son for the leadership of the United Kingdom during a period known as the Regency Crisis of 1788-89.
George III, who came to the throne at age 22 when his grandfather died, was blessed with a booming British economy which was just entering the industrial revolution and, in spite of losing the American colonies, soon added Canada to the British empire. In spite of this he found himself in conflict with the Whigs, who were strongly opposed to an absolute monarchy. His stubbornness and micromanagement style of leadership soon caused his popularity to reign. His situation was not helped by the actions of his oldest son who agitated for George’s removal from the throne so he could be named regent.
The king’s erratic behavior, which with present day knowledge would have been treated as a mental illness with possible mood stabilizing drugs, was beyond the medical field of the time. He was treated with many primitive methods including leeches, bloodletting, blistering and purging.
Eventually his wife, brought in a Dr. Willis who used “new” procedures. The King eventually showed signs of some recovery and asserted his control.
The play, rather than plot driven, is a character study and the success of the play rests on the talents of the actor playing the role.
At The Shaw, the role is taken by the very talented Tom McCamus. His performance is a textured creation displaying extraordinary emotion and the ability to handle humor. He does not portray George III, he becomes George III. This is a master class of acting abilities complete with an obvious understanding of the motives and psyche of the man he is portraying.
Chick Reid, as Queen Charlotte, Jim Mezon as Dr. Baker, and André Sills as Pitt, are also very good.
Kent Bennett’s direction is problematic. In spite of McCamus and some of the performers’ excellence, the director fails to develop the same needed reality in many others. They, instead, feign their roles, with overdone gestures, fey expressions, often bridging on farce shadowed with melodrama. They create caricatures rather than real people.
One must question why the set design included two walls of box seats in which audience members were seated. Yes, even though the production philosophy under the direction of Tim Carrol, the Shaw’s new artistic director, is for two-way, inclusive theater, the presence of the on-stage on-lookers is questionable.
The stage audience couldn’t be commoners, as the King would never address “the people” directly. The cast couldn’t interact with them as this is a realistic play requiring not breaking reality with side comments. Even something that could have made sense for the stage audience didn’t work. The two young girls placed in the second balcony to throw roses onto the cast during the curtain call failed, as the lasses started their actions after the cast had permanently left the stage.
Capsule judgment: In spite of some questionable directorial decisions, “The Madness of George III” is a play well worth seeing. The script provides a fascinating view of a historical figure not often exposed to the public and Tom McCamus gives a tour de force performance in the lead role.
For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.