National and international politics, power as well as power vacuums, and the tragedy of the individual versus the fate of the nation. Alan Bennett’s 1991 play explores all of these issues, while Christopher Luscombe’s new production, first seen at the Theatre Royal Bath last year, has the attraction of a cast that could hardly be bettered.
Set in 1788-89 when George III went temporarily ‘mad’ (he is now believed to have suffered from porphyria) the play explores what actually happened when the King’s formal authority exceeded his practical power. There were those who supported the King to protect their own futures, or because they thought that his remaining in power still brought the best chance of stability. Others used the opportunity to try to seize power for themselves, or genuinely believed that handing the reins to the Prince of Wales would see Britain prosper by removing uncertainty at the heart of government.
At the centre of the story, however, lies the tragedy of one man, and in the title role David Haig is nothing short of magnificent. While Nigel Hawthorne in the original National Theatre production and 1994 film put in a more spiritual performance, Haig provides an earthier portrayal, making the King feel entirely human. Dramatically, George’s descent into madness is fairly swift, and his recovery largely captured in one scene, and yet Haig makes these rapid shifts in well being, as well as the numerous mood swings from line to line, feel entirely believable.
He is aided by Janet Bird’s minimalist set that focuses our attention entirely on the characters. Atmosphere is subtly generated through the playing of Handel, or by shouts in the parliament scenes, rather than from crowds gracing the stage. The supporting cast is also excellent, and includes Clive Francis as a determined but well intentioned Dr Willis, the man who finally achieves the King’s recovery. Nicholas Rowe is also a convincingly nervous Prime Minister, and Christopher Keegan a suitably puffed up Prince of Wales.
Ultimately, however, it is Haig who stands above all else. Whether he is recalling the marriages of even quite lowly subjects, reveling in pretending to conduct his orchestra, or still asserting his divine right while being restrained in a straitjacket, he never stops us from seeing George III as a flesh and blood human being.
Booking until 31 March 2012. Tickets: 020 7492 9930 or from the Apollo Theatre website.
Photo: Go mad for David Haig’s superb performance as George III, (c) Robert Day.