The Madness of George III at the Nottingham Playhouse review *****

The Madness of George III

Nottingham Playhouse, 13th November 2018

Flushed with success from his visit to Manchester the Tourist hopped on a train across the Peak District to the proud city of Sheffield, (where I see the Theatres will be staging a Rutherford and Sons next year ahead of a version at the NT, and will then attempt to stage The Life of Pi, which should be interesting), and then on to Nottingham.

An interesting exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – Feminisms, Gender, Resistance – but the main aim of the visit was the Playhouse and The Madness of George III. Now I booked this on the assumption, as with the Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange, that this was as near to a sure-fire winner as it was possible to get in theatrical terms. Alan Bennett at his witty best, but armed here with a riveting biographical story, directed by the ebullient new(ish) Artistic Director at the Playhouse, Adam Penford, and with Mark Gatiss in the lead, and Adrian Scarborough as Dr Willis, in a uniformly excellent cast. 

And sure-fire winner it turned out to be. Apparently it has become the biggest box-office hit in the Playhouse’s history. It was screened to millions (I may be exaggerating here) via the NT Live cinema programme and ensured a bunch of critics left their London mansions to deliver a slew of 4* and 5* reviews. The audience on the evening the Tourist attended plainly loved, explicit in the congratulations during the after-show discussions.

I saw the original NT production with Nigel Hawthorne as George back in 1991, the Apollo Theatre revival a few years ago with David Haig at his actorly best, and have seen the film version a fair few times. So you can probably tell I am a bit of a fan. I will assume that, since you are one of the very select band reading this, that you are too, so won’t bore you with plot or historical details. If you don’t I suggest you see the film tout suite. 

So what was so good about this production? Well first off Adam Penford has cut out a handful of scenes. AB’s play is already, like most of his work, structured as a series of very short scenes in multiple locations. This guarantees momentum but, allied with AB’s constant urge not to leave a potential quip on the table (which is why it is a comedy after all), can mean the characters, other than the King, come across as a bit thinly sketched. Cutting scenes out might seem counter-intuitive but it does actually mean we become more focussed on the “tragedy” of the King’s breakdown, and then the jubilation of his apparent recovery. I was also more aware here of the King’s relationship with his retinue. The political machinations, Whig vs Tory, the plotting of the Prince Regent and his faction, took a bit more of a back seat.

George III’s 59 year rule saw not just the Regency crisis, but the “loss” of American, the union of GB and Ireland, wars in Europe and throughout the burgeoning Empire, rivalry with France, the Agricultural Revolution and the accumulation of capital to fuel the Industrial Revolution, a new way to finance the monarchy, constitutional change and scientific advances (which George was keenly interested in when he was on top form). Whilst AB’s play only incidentally touches many of these profound changes it does brilliantly capture the dichotomy between the public and private life of the monarchy and the metaphor of the King’s breakdown mirroring the political struggle catalysed by the American War of Independence. 

The dynamism of the production was also very well served by Robert Jones’s ingenious set. The various locations were smartly rendered with a series of Georgian style duck-egg painted flats, on stage and suspended, which were moved into place with no interruption to the action at all. Richard Howell’s lighting design, Tom Gibbons’ sound and Lizzi Gee’s movement, as well as some blisteringly quick costume changes, all further contributed to the pace and period feel of the production (most memorably at the end of the first half). A theatre set to point up the theatricality which underpins royalty. 

However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the performance of Mark Gatiss that really made the difference. Adrian Scarborough’s Dr Willis, alarmingly forthright in his proto-psychiatric treatment of the King, (pointing up that he was just a man), in the second half, Debra Gillett’s devoted Queen Charlotte, Louise Jameson’s callous Dr Warren, Nicholas Bishop’s morose Pitt, Amanda Hadingue’s presumptuous Fox and Will Scolding’s nincompoop Prince Regent all caught the eye, but all eyes were on Mr Gatiss. As you might expect the comedy flowed easy for him: but better still was the way he caught the pathos of the king as he was plunged into a mania which he could not control but which he understood. “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me”. The production also doesn’t hold back from showing the physical pain that was inflicted on him by doctors who didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Mr Gattis’s detailing of the King’s speech, tics, convulsions and agonies is mesmerising. Adam Penford was keen to offer a more sympathetic, and contemporary reading, of the King’s mental illness and to avoid seeing his behaviour solely through the lens of humour. Thanks to Mark Gattis’s performance he certainly succeeded. 

History play, political drama, comedy. tragedy? This production makes the case for all of these in a forthright way. Thank you Nottingham Playhouse. I’ll be back. 

Vincent River at the Park Theatre review ****

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Vincent River

Park Theatre, 29th March 2018

I wonder if the 2070s equivalents of the Finborough Theatre or the Orange Tree Theatre, will be lauded for their Philip Ridley revivals. Mr Ridley’s subject matter and idiom means he is a nailed on certainty to get multiple airings in today’s theatrical world. His art, his novels particularly for young adults, his screenplays, his songs and his plays, again especially those aimed at the youth and away from old fellas like me, have a vitality and urgency, and attention grabbing narrative invention, which is hard to resist.

On paper his first play The Pitchfork Disney takes your breathe away. In the flesh, as it were, it is even more extraordinary. Remember this “in yer face” work was the first of its kind and budding young playwrights everywhere still likely harbour ambitions, knowingly or unknowingly, to capture some of its essence. The Fastest Clock in the Universe, in its dissection of self-image, and Ghost From a Perfect Place, loaded up with more graphic violence, built on its foundations. The ugly themes the plays explore, and our complicity with those themes as observers, remain compelling over two decades later.

And yet there is a bit of me that thinks they might be utter sh*te even as I am watching them, the shock tactics, and their torture porn narratives, pleading with us to see meaning in all this misery. Usual conundrum: are we in some way thrilled by this transgressive violence or are we chin-stroking at what is wrong in the human condition. Compounded by the fact that Mr Ridley is soooo imaginative a writer that you can’t take your eyes off his plays, even as you clock the dissonances.

I don’t know any of the plays which followed these debuts, the Brothers Trilogy, Tender Napalm, Shivered and the later adult plays. I saw the recent staging of the six monologues that make up Angry at the Southwark Playhouse. Not good I am afraid, like a student attempt at sketching out some short “Philip Ridley” style plays and a couple of limp jokes.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this revival of Vincent River, Mr Ridley’s fourth adult play, written in 2000, which followed the breakthrough trilogy. Well I can concur with those criterati who say this might just be his best play. There is a violent act which lies at the heart of the play, the theme is clear and vitally important, the behaviour if the characters unpredictable, the story is in real time, there are a couple of lightly shocking interactions and, yes, some drink, drugs and swearing. Yet, importantly, we get to see and feel the impact of real life horror on two real life people uncluttered by Mr Ridley’s fantasy.

Whilst the “twist”, such as it is, is unlikely to surprise I will spare you the detail. A middle aged woman Anita is moving into a threadbare flat in Dagenham having moved from LB Hackney, (Mr Ridley’s cabbie like enthusiasm for London’s geography is on show as usual though Shoreditch has moved on a bit since then). Her son Vincent has been murdered in what transpires was a brutal homophobic attack at a disused railway station. Davey arrives. He clams to have discovered Vincent’s body whilst walking his girlfriend home. The play then explores, across a compact 80 minutes, the connection between the two.

We are reliant on our two actors to let go in this highly charged scenario and, fortunately, they do. Moods change in an instance. I do not think I have ever seen Louise Jameson on stage before though she has had an illustrious theatre career with the RSC and the National Theatre. You will know her best from the telly. Sounds like she is taking on more work in the theatre. Thank goodness. This is not an easy role but you wouldn’t know it from this performance. Anita is grieving for sure, but she is also angry, with her son’s killers yes, with the authorities of course, but also with herself. She still hasn’t yet quite come to terms with her dead son’s sexuality. Tricky to convey. I hope she won’t mind me saying though that debutante, (just about), Thomas Mahy, might have have outshone her. He is a real talent. When the going gets tough and emotional, as it does with his monologue near the end, he is shatteringly convincing. He is more vulnerable than menacing at the start but that worked for me. These characters agree to be honest with each other to seek truth and maybe some absolution. This pair of actors need to be similarly honest. They are.

Robert Chevara is a new director to me though now I see what he can do, and has done, in the world of opera specifically, I see I have been the loser. The play doesn’t require complication. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set and Martin’s Langthorne’s lighting oblige. The Park 90 space fits the bill. This needs to be seen up close. Mind you I don’t suppose this is the product placement Tanqueray and FeverTree, Anita’s chosen tipple, were looking for,

I see that, for once even allowing for how far I have got behind in documenting my cultural adventures, (trust me you learn a lot by having to write about what you see), this production is still on for a few more performances. Go see it. Obviously if you a big fan of blockbuster musicals this may not be your bag but if you want to see what Philip Ridley is about, without the overt savagery, then this is for you.

So I think this at least will be a play that will be revived at the other end of the century. Hopefully as a warning about the dark times when people were attacked and even killed for their sexuality. Though given that has been true for many centuries I wouldn’t bet on it. Yet another thing to curse organised religion for. The well from which much intolerance springs.

I note that there was indeed another production of this very play in Manchester contiguous with this. As for Mr Ridley’s other plays. Of course they will appear, if only because there is a long line in the history of drama, back to the beginning, which seeks to shock its audience both for noble and ignoble purposes. And Mr Ridley, for all his narrative innovation, (and the gifts he serves up to designers), does have the words to back up his conceits of character and location.

Mind you at the pace with which society, and the art that reflects it, is changing who knows what will be de jour in 50 years time. Maybe there will be no live theatre – just a virtual reality experience you conjure up yourself. Like dreams and imagination. Whatever you do don’t click “I accept” and hand those over to the tech corporatocracy.