Touring – reviewed at Nottingham Playhouse
I last saw Alan Bennett’s 1991 play not long after I started university, before I started to blog. It was part of a pre-West End tour (starring the always watchable David Haig), a regional run designed to iron out the creases and allow actors to settle into their roles before the ‘proper’ run.
One might say theatre outside of the metropolis, just as someone describes Lincolnshire-hailed Dr Willis, is ‘drab, provincial and unconnected’. But that is not the case in Adam Penford’s superb production of Bennett’s timeless – certainly timely – play. It stars Mark Gatiss, Adrian Scarborough and Debra Gillett (the latter two last seen together in the National’s Exit the King over the summer), and will be the first production outside of London to be broadcast as part of NT Live since its inauguration in 2009.
Whereas Christopher Luscombe’s production was played out on an enormous scroll, Robert Jones’ design launches us directly into a rambling palace: a series of grand rooms with chandeliers and high ceilings, all veiled by a magnificent purple front cloth. Although having recently lost America and fearing the loss of the remaining colonies, King George is his eccentric, knowledgeable self, qualifying phrases with his characteristic ‘What what’.
As his memory and verbosity disintegrate, a series of doctors wheedle their way around the court, each more incompetent and blindly assured than the last. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Pitt, with sparring Whigs and a double-dealing chancellor encroaching on his territory, struggles to keep afloat a government that relies on the patronage of the monarch. With the King disengaged, the country is up for grabs and the political bickering and grasping egotism of the land’s rulers posits a keen counterpoint to the very human struggle at the centre of the play.
‘Caring’, to quote Bennett’s Lady in the Van, ‘is about shit’. As with Allelujah! at the Bridge this summer, Bennett affords the King a huge amount of human depth, most memorably through an interest in the scatological, as well as lucidity and profundity, sometimes when he’s in the depths of his illness. There are some fascinating insights regarding the importance of the self and the importance of seeming; and the trappings of power set against the trappings of madness. This is especially apparent in the scene which ends the first act. Strapped into a chair, not unlike a throne, with his court surrounding him, Gatiss writhes and screams that he is the king. This is returned by Scarborough’s Dr Willis correcting him: ‘No sir, you are the patient’. It is an exceptionally exciting scene to watch which plays with depictions of power, from the clothes he wears to the positioning of Gatiss on the stage.
This offers a great part for an actor, one which Gatiss relishes. His vocal and physical tics are memorable, while never reducing mental illness to a series of quirks. Gatiss gives a remarkably touching performance, and I often found my eyes smarting and my chest aching in empathy. The torrent of words and the King’s obvious frustration with his own uncontrollable behaviour is wholly believable (and relatable, speaking of my own experiences with mental illness) and exhausting to watch. Yet another mark of genius lies in Bennett’s capacity to produce fully rounded characters, the King is not a figure of ridicule, some of his political leanings and personal views may be unpalatable, yet the universality of his distress is an immense leveller; gone is the historical patriarch and all related preconceptions, before us, George is simply a man suffering from the insufferable.
Wilf Scolding also gives a bold performance as the Prince of Wales, squealing at the delight of becoming Prince Regent. The foppish ignorance of the two princes is a delicious contrast to the sycophantic snivelling of the trio of doctors, Gatiss’ decrepit majesty, and Scarborough’s harsh prosaicness.
Previously an associate at the National under Nicholas Hytner (the director of the original production), Penford brings a lot of authority to this production and, in a play that is somewhat short on great female roles, should be praised for his gender neutral casting. Above all, he lets the play’s resonances speak for themselves: the unstable leader, the queasy progeny between King and country, and the ignorance and trepidation with which mental health is addressed (something which thankfully is getting better, but still has a long way to go). Bennett’s play is sensitive yet satirical, regal yet humane, uproarious one moment and tear-jerking the next. Penford’s production is a lush and pertinent celebration of Bennett at his best.