"All good actors want to improve, not to be indulged," says Michael Pennington, who is playing King George III in Alan Bennett's play about the troubled king who loses his marbles - and the respect of his subjects. He is referring to the director of the piece, Rachel Kavanaugh, one of the country's hottest young talents, and someone whom Pennington has clearly relished the chance to work with. He says he would get sick to the back teeth if he didn't work with enthusiastic directors half his age. "As I get older [he's 60] it's expected that I will take care of my own performance. I long for directors to be tough with me, as Kavanaugh is."
Many people will remember the character of the king with alarming mood swings from Nicholas Hytner's 1994 film adaptation, which saw Nigel Hawthorne as George III running through the corridors in his nightie, quite gaga, "It's a wonderful part to play," says Pennington. "Comparing it with King Lear is unavoidable."
But what is refreshing is that a play of this scale, with a cast of 20 and and an imposing set, is possible outside of the RSC and National, where it premiered 10 years ago. The Madness of King George III is co-produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. The play is being produced in conjunction with Arthur Miller's, A View From the Bridge and the two theatres will swap productions after a month. "It is only possible if two theatres combine their resources."
Although Pennington has worked in theatre for 40 years, and performed in many RSC and National Theatre productions, as well as co-running the English Shakespeare Company from 1985 to 1992, he is not a celebrity. "That is because I haven't done the movie thing," he says. This year he has written Are You There Crocodile? Inventing Anton Chekhov and played the title role in the English Touring Theatre's production of the Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman. He has also directed A Midsummer Night's Dream this summer in Regent's Park, and moved effortlessly from playing Dr Dorn in The Seagull at this year's Edinburgh Festival to rehearsing for The Madness of George III. "Switching characters is what I'm paid to do," he says.
Pennington spends much of the time on stage in strait jackets, but whether the King was really mad, or suffering from a condition called porphyria, is something Pennington researched. "He was subjected to brutal treatments, including being blistered with hot glass to draw the disease out. It is easy to deplore, but they had no idea how else to deal with it," says Pennington. "This physical and genetic illness produces symptoms of madness as well as physical collapse. It has been in the royal family since James I, and even Queen Victoria may have had a touch of it."
'The Madness of King George III', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds LS2 (0113 213 7700; www.wyplayhouse.com) 19 September - 18 OctoberReuse content