Royal doolally and a pot of blue pee


I am not an object: Mad King George (Mark Gatiss), surrounded by his royal subjects, including Dr Willis (Adrian Scarborough) on the extreme left. Photographs courtesy The Guardian.

DON’T FALL INTO the trap of taking the lull in theatre productions in Johannesburg at this time of year as an indication that there’s nothing worth seeing. Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III filmed by the National Theatre Live, takes the prize for the finest bit of filmed theatre you might be privileged enough to see for a long while. It starts this week for a very limited season and you will want to drink up every moment in the three hour duration of it. Indeed, it’s good enough to change your holiday plans.

It’s a matter of blending together the incomparable wit, linguistic rhythm and sense of historical detail of Bennett’s pen, with the true, yet bizarre anecdote in the life of Britain’s King George III in the 18th century, where a case of the genetic blood illness porphyria put him in danger of losing his head and his kingship. But this Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company production is much more than the sum of just those parts. With the utterly brilliant Mark Gatiss in the lead, opposite the impeccable Debra Gillett as his wife, Queen Charlotte, the work features a gender fluidity which is contemporary and engaging, rude phrases that sparkle, a gloss on medical business and a set design that will leave you gasping.

Director Adam Penford magicks the conventional proscenium stage into rapid scene changes which reduce and enlarge the performance space in a way that you struggle to believe. Perspective and crowds are evoked creatively and the protocols of regency splayed out with conviction. Indeed, as Penford says at the outset of the production, monarchy is by its nature theatrical. Take that premise, toss in a goodly share of oft lascivious madness, the rudimentary roots of medical specialisations, a trio of general practitioners with their tried and tested preparations and techniques of the pulse, inducing blisters and peering at faecal material, respectively, to say nothing of a fat adult son who sees a chink in his dad’s armour and a possible pathway to snatching the throne, and you’ve got a tale that’s almost too good to be true: it mixes hilarious wit well timed with great tragedy; Shakespeare idioms with medieval torturous medical practices and it’s all sewn together with a spot of Georg Friedrich Handel’s music.

This work is as detailed and complex as a Shakespearean play, yet it was written in 1991. Its narrative presents a rich and nuanced gloss on the complexities of political rule and ambition, but the flow of the tale is clear and memorable and you will hold onto moments that will be seared into your sensibilities. It’s unequivocally among this year’s top pickings.

  • The Madness of George II is written by Alan Bennett and directed by Adam Penford assisted by Jamie Armitage, for the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company. It features a cast headed by Nadia Albina, Nicholas Bishop, Mark Gatiss, Debra Gillett, Amanda Hadingue, Jack Holden, David Hounslow, Stephanie Jacob, Louise Jameson, Andrew Joshi, Adrian Karim, Harry Kershaw, Sara Powell, Adrian Scarborough, Wilf Scolding and Jessica Temple. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Robert Jones (set design), Richard Howell (lighting), Tom Gibbons (sound) and Lizzi Gee (movement design), Hazel Holder (voice coach), Sarah Bird and Stuart Burt (casting), Richard Mawbley (wigs) and Poppy Hall (wardrobe supervisor). Release date in South Africa, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: December 22 2018, for a limited season.


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