NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — Rumors are afloat that the new regime at the Shaw Festival plans to move even further away from this illustrious theatre’s central mandate of honoring the plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.
That could be a risky proposition — depriving the festival of its distinctiveness and uniqueness within the international theatre community. On the other hand, that hallowed mandate has evolved over the years and already shows more flexibility than anyone might have imagined at the time of the festival’s modest birth more than half a century ago. Furthermore, the debut playbill of its new artistic director, Tim Carroll, features seven items that do, in fact, fulfill the wider mandate reflected in more recent seasons.
Even so, The Madness Of George III, which arrived last week at the Royal George Theatre, might seem to be a definite wild card in the mix. Yet, one suspects that the shade of GBS himself might heartily approve of its inclusion in the festival’s 2017 season.
Alan Bennett’s 1991 play may have been written more than four decades after Shaw’s death, and be set well before Shaw’s lifetime, but it does zero in on a pet GBS obsession — the practice of medicine. Bennett’s script offers the delicious spectacle of self-serving London physicians vying for power within the medical hierarchy as they debate a major issue of the day. Which among them can best diagnose and treat the affliction of the kingdom’s most celebrated invalid?
That invalid, of course, is King George lll — remembered in history not only as the monarch who lost the American colonies but also as the victim of a recurring madness so debilitating that he eventually had to yield his sovereign authority to his dissolute son, The Prince of Wales.
Over the years, various explanations for George’s illness have been advanced — among them porphyria, a severe metabolic disorder, a bi polar condition. But in the world of this play, set in the late 1780s, the King’s doctors seem more preoccupied with their place in the medical pecking order than in showing concern for the agonies of their patient — which is why, in thrall to ambition, they are prepared to subject him to all manner of bodily and psychological assaults.
These moments are among the most persuasive in a sometimes problematic production. Furthermore, the spectacle of these medical men squabbling among themselves reminds one irresistibly of similar scenes in Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, which dealt with the difficult moral choices that sometimes must be made in the practice of medicine. And that further reminds us that Shaw himself had a jaundiced a view of the medical profession.
So in Bennett’s neo-Shavian satire of late 18th Century medicine, we find some fascinating linkage to the festival’s central mandate. Furthermore, in the stellar work of Tom McCamus as the tormented king, there’s a renewed affirmation of the festival’s reputation as a place where you regularly see performances destined for the memory books. This is one of them.
There’s a danger that this play can seem exploitive, that the indignities, indeed the cruelties, imposed on George lll — the agonizing blisters raised on his body, the gagging, the straitjacketing — can degenerate into mere spectator sport. Bennett’s capacity for black humor can be unrelenting, but it’s leavened by his compassion and affection for the central figure, the play’s only fully realized character.
Kevin Bennett’s production manages to cut some fine contrasts. There are those opening images of McCamus’s George lll at his most normal — taking child-like pleasure in his regality as his attendants swoop upon him, armed with the trappings of kingship, and transform him, layer upon layer, into a resplendent model of kingship. But then come the mental breakdown and the attendant humiliations and finally that climactic moment when, stripped of the symbols of royalty, a nightgown flapping pathetically about his knees, the King of England is fastened into a restraining chair.
There’s another striking moment when we first see George being forced into a straitjacket and then — in ironic contrast — get an immediate glimpse of the foppish Prince of Wales being squeezed into a corset, a necessary accessory if he is to present a kingly image in place of his mad father.
The production relishes such set-piece moments. But it fails to find a consistent style, with the evening fluctuating wildly between unforced naturalism, especially in McManus’s performance, and arch mannerisms. Designer Ken MacDonald has transformed the Royal George stage into an exquisite replica of a galleried 18th Century playhouse. And if this seems reminiscent of London’s reborn Globe Theatre, it’s probably no accident, given that both Bennett and festival artistic director Tim Carroll are huge fans of that place.
But here, it’s a setting whose very artifice can encourage preciousness. We can always depend on the presence of McCamus to shake the play into life, but there remain moments when the production stumbles. Stylization in performance requires something more than empty posturing.
For all its popularity, this is by no means Alan Bennett’s best play, and it provides only one fully realized character — the tormented but curiously lovable king. What remains are largely sketches or somewhat less than sketches. To be sure, the ever dependable Jim Mezon is capable of going the extra mile to bring shape and texture to the character of the ambitious Dr Baker, pompously singing the virtues of “a good sweat.” Martin Happer preens and flounces to his heart’s delight as the foppish Prince of Wales, and Patrick McManus scores as the quietly formidable Dr.Willis who is determined to win ultimate control over his celebrity patient. And Andre Sills, strikes a note of weary perseverance as the beleaguered prime minister, William Pitt. On the other hand, Chick Reid’s simpering portrayal of the devoted Queen Charlotte is a serious miscalculation.
The play is set against a background of political turmoil, and this production doesn’t seem that interested in ensuring that a North American audience can connect with what’s going on. Some performers have been assigned to double, sometimes triple roles. And because of gender-blind casting, they also may find themselves changing sexes — and before our very eyes.
The transformation scenes are imaginatively engineered reminding us that this is a production that likes to show off its cleverness. But that doesn’t guarantee characterizations with substance. Who are all these people? Who are they? Too many subordinate characters often seem interchangeable and indefinable — although well schooled in the art of bowing and scraping.
Ultimately, it is Tom McCamus’s outstanding performance that sustains the production. Alan Bennett chose to focus on a period of George III’s reign when his illness could ease up and go into remission. The final, irreversible madness is yet to come. Bennett is therefore able to ensure the king a kinder, gentler, more audience-pleasing landing at the end. He ‘also is able to give us a more complete character study — showing us the essential simplicity of the good-hearted “Farmer George” we meet at the beginning and then at the very end, the darkness having lifted, reminding us again of his innate kindness with that lovely moment when he has an affectionate reunion with his queen in the royal bedchamber.
But even during the King’s descent into madness and the terrible ordeal that follows, McCamus is giving us a George painfully aware that he is plunging into darkness. “I am going out of my mind,” he says woefully. “My mind is going out of me.” So as the play proceeds and we’re treated to the spectacle of doctors and attendants chattering away over the color of his latest urine sample or the condition of his stool, the laughter that such scenes may conjure up comes uneasily. That’s because we remain conscious of the king’s humanity — a gentle, inquiring humanity that peaks in those wonderful moments when, well on the road to recovery, he finds curious consolation in Shakespeare and the grim climax of King Lear. It is with moments like this that the production gains the strength that has sometimes eluded it elsewhere.
(The Madness Of George lll continues to Oct. 15. Ticket information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfesr.com