the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

RSC's Madness of George III (1993)

Caring about the crazy king

 Watching the RSC production of The Madness of George III brought to mind Hamlet's words: "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch  the conscious of the king". Unfortunately George's conscious was nowhere to found on stage. Ironically this underscored the first part of the Danish Prince's words. An evening in the theater without drama is laborious. The degree of the niceties of the production (set design, lighting, casting…) become irrelevant. The play really is the thing.

This drama centers around the Machiavellian intrigues which are played-out behind palace doors as King George slowly seeps into psychosis. There are two anti polar Prime Ministers, a loyal wife, an evil son, a stupid son, a slew of sycophantic physicians and an entourage of court attendants with varying degrees of morality. The set design was interesting. The costuming appropriate. The directing was adequate and the acting was superb. In fact it was the presence of Nigel Hawthorne, George III, which drew me to Stanford's Performing Arts Center. He is, without doubt, one of the preeminent actors of out time. There was, however, a malaise which swept over me as I left the theater. Certainly the $60 ticket combined with the $20 Metro-North round-trip contributed to my uneasiness. I continually re-assured my self of the facts presented: This production featured a range of performers who were a magnificent compliment to Mr. Hawthorne. It was a world class production. Tickets for movies are $8 and this was certainly more fulfilling than the last 13 features I attended. The return trip to Grand Central saw my apprehension blossom into a feeling of a squandered opportunity.

 The Madness of George III is literally mind-boggling. What could possess someone to write such a play? Why would performers of this caliber dedicate so much time to it? (This series of dates in American followed Mr. Hawthorne's two English Tours). George III has historically been an unsympathetic figure in the United States. This play does little to dispel our Founding Father's first impressions. It is sad when he loses his marbles. It evokes the same sort of pathos one feels to anyone in pain. It fails to be tragic. There is nothing at stake. The slew of characters, whether Whig or Tory, loyal or unfaithful, likable or pathetic; are all uninspired. It is not their fault. This play could not have been  better cast. They did the best they could with what they had. The Welsh doctor, the two sons and the wife I found particularly captivating. The problem lies, not surprisingly, with the king. There is nothing which binds the audience to the monarch's struggle. This is especially true for an American audience. Our political philosophy pre-disposes us to the opposition. When the supposedly loathsome Whig prime minister presented his agenda I personally wanted to rise to my feet and applaud. Yet in the context of the drama he was aligned with the evil forces such as the hedonistic elder son. This Oscar Wilde-like regent-in-waiting was painted in sharp contrast to the staid, stately, sensible George. Frugality and prudence might be admirable qualities in a guardian but they can distance an audience which wants a protagonist with more flair. George was more interesting and likable when he was raving nonsense while covered in shit. The playwright, once again, was on the other side of the fence. The audience is, supposedly, waiting with baited breath for the pestilence to vanish.

 Dramatic re-creations of actual events occur for combination of three reasons: historical significance (e.g. masterpiece theater's Henry VIII & Elizabeth I), voyeuristic thrill (e.g. television real crime re-enactments of Waco Texas or the Starkweather killings) or the author uses the event as a springboard to reflect on an aspect of human nature (e.g. The Crucible or Amadeus). The Madness of George III takes a revolutionary approach. It re-enacts obscure, tedious historical events with no apparent point of view. What can be said about George? He was an unfortunate man stricken with a disease which was incurable in the 18 century. Fortunately he recovers in time to hold off the jackals in waiting. A perusal of the program, which theorizes his condition was a build-up of red blood cells, shows that his good luck ran out almost immediately after the final curtain fell. His remission ended and he lived out his final years in confinement after loosing his sight and hearing as well as his mind. Why is it so important to stage a re-enactment of his initial encounter with the illness? What does his story say about the human condition? I pose these questions to the author of the play because after witnessing the production I have no answers. It was entertaining to watch someone of Mr. Hawthrone's abilities rant and rave. To quote Hamlet's good old uncle Claudius: "Madness in great ones, must not unwatch'd go". I humbly add "If you can afford the dough and don't care if the action is really, really slow".  

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