THE BASICS: THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III, a 1991 play by Alan Bennett, directed by Kevin Bennett (no relation) starring Tom McCamus runs through October 15 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Shawfest.com or 1-800-511-7429. Theater opens ½ hour before curtain, full service cozy bar in the downstairs lounge, great coffee, snacks. Runtime: 2 hours and 45 minutes, one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: King George III, having “lost” the colonies during the American Revolutionary War, is suffering from unexplained physical and mental maladies, during which time his son, The Prince of Wales (the Crown Prince) is plotting to usurp his father’s title by first being named “Regent” and ultimately replacing his father’s Prime Minister, Pitt, a Tory, with his crony Fox, a Whig. Will the King recover in time to save the monarchy? Only Act II will tell. Along the way we meet various comic characters – sycophants, political aspirants, and four doctors, three of them fools à la Molière.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Is this an historical drama? It’s more zany than that, but it certainly would help to understand the English system of government, which is neither Canadian nor U.S. If you are a longtime viewer of MASTERPIECE THEATER on PBS, you’ll have a running start. And it will pay handsomely to get in your seat early and start reading the program which is, as with all Shaw productions, extremely rich in content and background, including a summary of Eighteenth-century politics by the playwright. You have been counseled.
Is this a tragedy? Nobody dies, so no. Is it a comedy? It does end, if not with a wedding, at least a reunification of King and Queen and plenty of dancing, so, yes, it’s a comedy. Is it funny? It has its moments, good and “nice try.”
Is it particularly “British?” Good gawd, yes. The playwright, once an Oxford professor, in 1960 joined Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore to create satirical skits which ultimately turned into a show called BEYOND THE FRINGE which appealed to the generation born around World War II in its no-holds barred skewering of the establishment. It was political and confrontational, but it was also surreal and opened the door for shows such as MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS. And, truth be told, THE BENNY HILL SHOW and, in the states, THE ROWAN AND MARTIN SHOW.
…things are swirling about on stage, including see-through chamber pots swirling with yellow urine, purple urine, and from time to time some hyper-realistic turds.
So, in this play, where every actor plays at least two but usually three roles (except for the roles of King, Queen, and Prince) things are swirling about on stage, including see-through chamber pots swirling with yellow urine, purple urine, and from time to time some hyper-realistic turds. Costumes are quickly changed right in front of us and, under the new mandate of Artistic Director Tim Carroll, the audience is involved in the production, including those in the front row as well as in box seats on stage. The latter during the play inspect turds, wear masks, throw roses, and are addressed directly by several cast
Mr. Carroll (or “TC” as he prefers) does advise us, in his statement in the program, “… you really need to see every show more than once.” So, perhaps the second time around, it might seem less frenetic, rather more like a geometric arc, and less like a schizophrenic’s polygraph chart.
The costumes, each unique, are a major part of the play, which opens with the king slowly being outfitted in his royal garb, layer upon layer of silk and ermine, only to appear later in the play wearing nothing but his soiled underpants. This goes to the point, which is made clear on stage, that politics is mostly appearance. If you can appear kingly then you can continue as king. If you appear to be deranged, then you will be deposed.
I wondered if anything I was learning could be applied to Donald J. Trump, sometimes Presidential; then there are those deranged early morning tweets. There are no direct mentions, comparisons, or contemporary references at all. So you can get your own ticket and then you can read into it what you will.
The direction by Shaw first-timer Kevin Bennett has some fine moments. The interaction between Charles III (Tom McCamus) and Queen Charlotte (Chick Reid) is tender (they call each other “Mrs. King” and “Mr. King”) as is the scene where the king and his retinue, as part of his therapy, read lines aloud from Shakespeare’s KING LEAR.
And there are stellar performances by those loyal to the king, new-comer Rebecca Gibian as both Greville/Footman and last year’s breakout star André Sills as both Pitt/Dr. Warren. (Last season Mr. Sills was simply outstanding in three productions: “MASTER HAROLD…AND THE BOYS, THE ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK GIRL, and THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE.) The Shaw Festival is particularly good about gender-neutral and color-blind casting and it really pays off for them in this production.
A note here. Shaw Festival actors are among the finest you will see. They are the Swiss Army Knives of performers. They can do anything asked of them. That is why, at Shaw Festival productions, most of what is good or bad can be laid at the feet of the director. Whatever his or her vision is, come hell or high water, the set designers, costumers, and actors will make it happen. And, in the end, I think there was just too much happening on stage this time.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!