Posts Tagged ‘Alan Bennett’

The Madness of George III, Richmond Theatre, September 2011

6 September, 2011

Towards the end of this play, Dr. Willis from Lincolnshire places his hand on the King’s shoulder and offers to accompany him when he makes an important appearance. Shades of that recent movie The King’s Speech, but the King — now fully recovered — turns on him abruptly for his presumption. You do not touch the King, nor look at him, nor address him directly, and we are suddenly back to the beginning with Farmer George who is wise in all things and more than a match for his ministers, not to say his fashionable doctors, who had no clue what treatments to recommend.

David Haig and Beatie Edney as King and Queen

Indeed how do you cure a king whose urine turns a purple colour — a strong sign of an attack of porphyria — when you have no idea what it indicates? Porphyria is a disease stemming from a genetic condition and if that was indeed his problem, it points to the utter futility of the treatments meted out to him. These include the appalling practice of blistering, which we see performed on stage. When the King is fully recovered he turns on Dr. Warren, who forced this treatment on him, with the words, “You fashionable fraud. Go and blister some other blameless bugger!”. The king is back to his old self, sharp tongued and witty, and Dr. Warren — more sympathetic to the fashionable Prince of Wales than to the king — is firmly put in his place.

The King restrained

This play by Alan Bennett, first staged twenty years ago, gives a brilliant insight into the world of George III, and the restless desires of his eldest son, who wittily says, “To be heir to the throne is not a position — it is a predicament”. But the Prince of Wales does not have the intellectual curiosity or incisiveness of his father, and not a few politicians are anxious to support him, and of course be on the winning side, if the King’s condition compels a Regency. On the King’s side is Pitt the Younger, superbly played by Nicholas Rowe, whose body language alters most cleverly depending on the King’s condition. Beatie Edney is wonderful as Queen Charlotte, or Mrs. King as her husband calls her in bed, and when the King talked lewdly to her in German about Lady Pembroke, the audience roared with laughter — it is not necessary to know colloquial German to understand phrases comparing her breasts to ripe melons. Christopher Keegan was equally fine as a plump, slightly camp Prince of Wales, expressing his desire for a new emphasis on style yet being suitably obsequious to the King as occasion demanded, and Clive Francis gave a convincing performance of the dull but forceful Dr. Willis from Lincolnshire. This production by Christopher Luscombe beautifully combines humour with the serious aspects of royal illness and recovery, aided at times by Handel’s music.


Yet this play for all the fine acting by its large cast would be nothing without the extraordinary performance of David Haig as King George. To go from a display of sound common sense to mental uncertainty, physical discomfort and an inability to control himself, is surely a test of a great actor’s skills and to combine this with sweating anguish and fear as he is physically restrained and compelled to undergo appalling indignities, is quite remarkable. If you have the chance to see this production, do not hesitate.

Performances in Richmond continue until September 10 — for details click here. The production then tours to: Newcastle Theatre Royal, Sept 12–17; Norwich Theatre Royal, Sept 19–24; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, Sept 26–Oct 1; Nottingham Theatre Royal, Oct 3–8; Cambridge Arts Theatre, Oct 10–15; Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury Oct 17–22; Milton Keynes Theatre, Oct 24–29; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Oct 31–Nov 5; Hall for Cornwall, Truro, Nov 7–12; Chichester Festival Theatre, Nov 14–19.

The Habit of Art, National Theatre, December 2009

11 December, 2009

This new play by Alan Bennett shows actors rehearsing a new play about W.H.Auden. The key scene is when Benjamin Britten arrives to consult Auden about his forthcoming opera Death in Venice.  That places the action in 1972, since the opera was first produced in 1973 — I remember it well. It also provides a focus for the homosexuality that is a key element in this drama. Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice involves the middle-aged writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who is erotically drawn to a boy named Tadzio. There is no sex, only a desire that becomes an obsession, but the desire is a metaphor representing Britten’s own yearnings for boys, which is contrasted with Auden’s indelicate habits and use of rent boys. The juxtaposition of Auden and Britten shows the horribly uptight Britten bringing out the best in Auden, who encourages him and offers to edit or rewrite Myfanwy Piper’s libretto. This warmth and enthusiasm shows another side of Auden, whose character is wonderfully portrayed by Richard Griffiths.

Alex Jennings plays Britten, and both he and Griffiths also play the roles of actors rehearsing these creative men with their habit of art, and in Jennings’ case his role as a somewhat camp and homosexually-knowing actor contrasts with his clever representation of Britten’s careful correctness. Elliot Levey portrays the supposed author of the play they are rehearsing, showing confused irritation at the actors’ attempts to alter the script, including Adrian Scarborough’s effort to interpose a song and dance routine. He plays the role of Humphrey Carpenter and is frustrated at being merely a device, but that, and the occasional frustration of actors forgetting lines, are dealt with by Kay, the stage manager who keeps it all going, despite the unexpected absence of the director. She is brilliantly played by Frances de la Tour, and I only wonder whether this delightful fancy of a rehearsal within a play would work as well with less gifted actors. As it is, the direction by Nicholas Hytner gives an excellent forward movement to Bennett’s text. This is theatre about theatre, a play about a play, and an exploration about homosexual boundaries in a world that wasn’t sure where it wanted those boundaries drawing. But in the end it’s a play about Auden, Britten and indeed Bennett himself, and as usual his dialogue is wonderfully effective.