Mark Gatiss and Adrian Scarborough as the King and the doctor who perhaps cured his madness are magnificent in this Nottingham Playhouse production directed by Adam Penford of Bennett’s thrilling play. The casting of the supporting roles is also fascinating because many of the male parts, including the trip of appalling doctors who attempted to “cure” the King of his madness, are played by actresses and for once, what is something of a fashionable ploy these days, actually works well. It is a mark of the talents and skills of the actresses concerned that their sex does not matter, helped a bit but the fact this is 1788 so the clothes define the roles anyway and no concession is made to their covering an actress rather than an actor, to use other unfashionable terms.
It is 1788 and the King, happily married with an obliging mistress ever at his side, father of some 14 children by his devoted Mrs Queen, is a man of passions, pleasures – he is Farmer George, beloved of his people, he thinks, and much distressed at the loss of those American colonies. Gatkiss creates a warm, funny man, a man of speech tics and sudden changes of direction who drives his Prime Minister, a bemused, cold William Pitt (Nicholas Bishop) equally mad by his refusal to sit still, sign papers, or stop talking. He is quite clearly in the throes of a breakdown and it duly happens, after which the hapless George is subject to the horrors of the medical profession of the time and the wish of his dissolute son, the Prince of Wales, to take over the reins of power as Regent.
Then into this collection of medical men who have no idea what they are doing but are obsessed with cures that do not cure comes Dr Willis (Adrian Scarborough matching Gatkiss with a superb performance), as the Lincolnshire asylum keeper who treats the mad king as a stallion needing to be broken in. It is a sort of psychiatric approach and it works. George is cured. This is a man who cannot be touched, whose every whim is catered for, surrounded by courtiers whose good fortune depends on him – the point is not made but this is a Trump going berserk in the White House as the lackeys scurry around trying not to get dismissed.
A ll this takes place on a fine set of sliding panels devised by Robert Jones which conjures up the palaces of the time beautifully, and to the sounds of Handel whose music obsesses the King. I did not see the Playhouse production in 2018 which I do regret but I do not cover theatres outside London, although I did see the famous National Theatre production with Nigel Hawthorne as the King, and, of course, the film in which Helen Mirren played Mrs Queen. That was a huge success for both Bennett and Hawthorne, one of the defining roles of thelatter’s career, but this production shows the play to have a life of its own and demonstrates just how good an actor Gatkiss is.
Alan Geary reviewed it when it opened at Nottingham and the production details are with his review – I do not dissent from anything he said, and the missing star is only because this is a filmed version and it is on that I am passing comment – in the theatre live I suspect it would have had an even greater impact. This is an evening with King Mark indeed.
Photograph: Manuel Harlan.