THESE DAYS it's spin doctors who infest the game of politics; at the end of the 18th century, it was medical doctors - or, more to the point, quacks. If the monarch fell ill, then Parliament too had a funny turn, for the King was still the fons et origo of patronage and chose as his chief minister whoever could patch together a majority in the Commons. Royal sickness, therefore, spelt political crisis, since it meant that the unfilial Prince of Wales and hangers-on could start to get above themselves.
Hence, too, the unedifying display of rival physicians (supported by different factions), each with his grisly recommended remedy - the stool- man, the blisterer, the pin-down man and moral bully, etc - and none with what you could call a pleasant bedside manner or properly scientific approach. Watching Alan Bennett's excellent The Madness of George III, which has returned to the Lyttelton for a short period before embarking on its US tour, you're sometimes tempted to make a modern parallel with 'expert' witnesses from the psychiatric profession who, in court, can sometimes come to entirely opposed conclusions on the same evidence.
Resembling an animated Rowlandson cartoon, Nicholas Hytner's marvellous production does handsome justice to the tricky tone, spirit and movement of a piece which unfolds like some elegant, lopsided palindrome whose overall meaning is rather elusive. Turning on the touchingly comic self-reflexive scene in which George, now on the mend, reads the King's part in Lear's reawakening with Cordelia, Bennett's play eventually deposits its hero in the rude but precarious health of the start.
Interestingly, the production now cuts the scene towards the end where Ida Macalpine, a 20th-century expert on George's condition, suddenly appeared, spelling out the fact that the King was suffering from a metabolic disorder (hence the blue urine) which simply presented the symptoms of madness and that he suffered further attacks and eventually died deaf, blind and off his rocker. The wry philosophical question 'If he wasn't mad but had all the symptoms, what's the difference?' now registers itself only implicitly, for the audience is left to come to its own diagnosis of what has caused the turnaround and also to deduce from the way Nigel Hawthorne clutches his temples in the last, intimate scene with his wife (Selina Cadell) that the storm has not irrecovably passed.
Julian Wadham is superbly reined- in and refrigerated as Pitt, and I don't see how Nigel Hawthorne's performance could be bettered, nor how it could illuminate with a surer sense of the tragicomic the play's droll and melancholy insights. Kings start off in a pretty insane relationship to others; the fact that George's health is a political football means that he ends up getting treated with little deference or solicitude. 'I am the King of England,' howls Hawthorne, as he is strapped to the chair, the mounting strains of 'Zadok the Priest' making it seem like a mock-coronation. His tormentor-physician contradicts him: 'You are the patient.'
Continues at the Lyttelton, London SE1 (071-928 2252).
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