[Manuel Harlan photography]
“Your majesty must behave, or, endeavour to do so”
1786. Three years after the Treaty of Paris, the King’s mind is unravelling.
Plagued by bouts of porphyria and suspected bipolar disorder, which ultimately led to the Regency Crisis of 1788, what first passes for eccentricity descends into the intelligible ramblings of a man unfit to govern even himself.
The Madness of George III is a historical comedy-drama during the latter years of George III’s rule prior to and during the Regency Crisis. George III has long been a subject of extensive research (and lore) regarding his physical health – in 2013, St George’s lead a research project into the theories of his ‘madness’, ultimately concluding his illness was psychiatric. In 2017, George III: The Genius of the Mad King was released after the royal archive made 350,000 papers public, showing a man viscerally interested in the world (despite never leaving England).
Since its debut, there has been a significant shift in perceptions around mental health. An increase in global connectivity has allowed for greater access to all kinds of platforms to source everything from information and research, to hearing other people’s experiences (good and bad). Whether it’s content creators (Special Books by Special Kids) or the media’s flavour of the day (Britney Spears and her conservatorship battle), we are living in a time where gaps in medical expertise around mental illness are often found online.
Ok, but what about the play?
With every passing year since it’s first performance in 1991, the ‘treatment’ the King is subjected to becomes increasingly cruel. Against the backdrop of an arguably more compassionate view of mental illness, societally we recognise that treatments once viewed as medicine is now considered torturous. Of all the treatments Dr Willis implements, only talking therapy (crossed with nature-based therapy) is medically recommended.
As a result, it makes the comic aspect less comedic. Mark Gatiss’ performance as King George is, bluntly, captivating. With a back catalogue of predominately comic work, their ‘straight’ roles have often been more understated in nature. Yet this role is not one of humour, but of demise. The funny voices and outlandish actions are a mere byproduct of the King’s unravelling, and evident pain. Whether you’ve experienced mental illness or witnessed it, Gatiss’ ability to convey how debilitating it is to be unable to advocate for yourself, not even your own thoughts, is heartbreaking.
Structurally, the play has flaws. A litany of short scenes and entire scene changes within the first twenty minutes is enough to disengage an audience from caring, let alone follow the rushed historical recap of the play’s timeline. The style of the language, too, seems confused – initially heightened akin to something more Shakespearian, it loses steam as the King deteriorates into vulgarities. What started as a clear contrast between the court and the King’s ‘madness’ is quickly forgotten.
Ultimately, the play’s main problem lies in its incredibly neat conclusion: a once decrepit, twitching, and soiled creature is all of a sudden cured of his ‘madness’, and returns to his duties. History details the King’s surprising recovery (and subsequent recoveries), before ultimately deteriorating away from court, and later developing dementia.
History aside, even as a plot decision to tidily close the play as a ‘cured’ King is in many ways an insult to the mental illness(es) King George was suspected to have. The play briefly hints at a relapse in its closing minutes, but in a way that implies something mischievous rather than foreboding. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of a miraculous recovery and royal address to the doting crowd, it feels insincere.