Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

A world of schemers

IcBirmingham.co.uk, October 2003, Diane Parkes

‘Woe to thee O land, when thy king is a child.’ Since time immemorial writers have shown a world turned upside-down when the king goes insane. But in Alan Bennett’s ‘The Madness of George III’, this world becomes a place of schemers, charlatans and cruelty.

Set in the 1780s, the success of Bennett’s play lies in our recognition that the situation could be transposed to our modern world with little difficulty.

And while period is an integral part of the drama we don’t need to be history experts to appreciate the story, says Michael Pennington, who is taking the part of the crazed king at the Rep Theatre in Birmingham. “I did quite a bit of research on the history, but the audience doesn’t need to,” he says. “In some ways it is better not to know it all as it can then come as a surprise. What you are seeing is the king going insane. Doctors at the time had no idea of the cause but it has since been identified as porphyria. He suffered a number of bouts during his lifetime and the play looks at one specific time.

“But while at the heart we see a king who is ill the effects of his illness go much further. It becomes a spectacle but it is a political spectacle as everyone looks for how they can turn it to their disadvantage.

“The repercussions of the king being ill are so big because of who he is. You have the Prince Regent hoping his father will die so he can become king, you have the politicians looking to manoeuvre their positions and even the doctors are in some ways thinking of themselves.”

And although out monarch no longer has absolute power, Michael points out how we care about the health of the great and powerful today.

“You only have to see Tony Blair sweating during a speech and it becomes a front page story or look at all the speculation over the Pope,” he says. “People are always fascinated by powerful people and it is the way of politics that people will take advantage.”

‘The Madness of George III’ is part of a collaboration between the Rep and the West Yorkshire Playhouse which offers both theatres the chance of large-scale productions with a longer run that is usual in rep.

“It is essential really for a production like this with such a big cast,” says Michael. “And it has been very successful. I think it will happen more in the future as it gives theatres a much wider range of plays they can produce.”

And for Michael, the Rep is a welcome return.

“I was last on stage at the Rep about 25 years ago in Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’,” he says. “But I do come quite often to see shows. I saw the recent David Hare trilogy and ‘Cinderella – The Ash Girl’. When you live in London there are a handful of theatres which you travel to because of the quality of their productions and the Rep is one of them.”

Return to The Madness of George III