The Shaw Festival’s first group of openings continued at the Royal George Theatre with a play featuring another Royal George: King George III and his descent into and harrowing return from apparent madness.
Alan Bennett’s 1991 play is a brilliantly crafted study of mental illness, political intrigue, family jealousies and quackery.
Director Kevin Bennett’s production is somewhat uneven, driven to great heights by Tom McCamus’ courageous, wide-ranging performance of the troubled monarch and dulled down by an excessive helping of farce. This will be maddening for some theatregoers who realize that the script’s wonderful balance of humour, pain, sorrow and rehabilitation is often MIA, depriving them of the full power of the playwright’s insights and art; for many more—as witness the opening night crowd’s enthusiasm for a swishy Prince of Wales (Martin Happer, nonetheless, giving it his flaming all) and flighty Duke of York (following direction to a T was Andrew Lawrie) howled with delight. Nothing wrong with that except to wonder how to reconcile the yuks with the regal ambition of the king’s eldest sons to push Dad aside and “have something to do.”
Changing characters on the fly by simply donning a different hat was also fun on the surface but merely added to the shallow hilarity rather than developing motives and subtext for politicos and physicians alike—all trying to suck at the teat of power or keep rivals at bay.
All of that said, there shouldn’t be an empty seat in the house (and even some on the stage thanks to the artistic trust’s keen desire to bring patrons into the action) for no other reason than witnessing McCamus as he gives a master class on verbal delivery (ranging from droll, royal wit, “what, what?” to perfectly timed speeches of pun-laced gibberish as his senses and wits disintegrate, leaving him at the suspect mercy of his most trusted advisers and healers). The cure/torture scenes (straightjacket, lashed to a chair, bleedings and jar skin burnings) are as chilling as reading this week’s news of present-day torture conducted by the “good guys” in Iraq. But the impact is, well, soiled, by the over-emphasis (largely through clear-glass chamber pot evidence: really?) of the changing status of the besieged King’s royal movements (once again tickling the funny bones of those who would rather ignore the cruelty by focussing on the potty bits).
Ironically, the King Lear reading—an ingenious play-within-the play-technique from Bennett—only serves to remind those familiar with the Bard’s tragedy of how vrai balance can be accomplished with dollops of humour rather than buckets full.
By the time Dr. Willis (Patrick McManus works most effectively with McCamus in the key role of tough love “treatments”) has literally brought the King back to his senses and the surprised pages are sacked, the curtain falls on a “Well that’s all right then” celebration without much thought at all for the evil done along the way. Yet isn’t that sort of willful blindness just the kind of thing that emboldens the disenchanted/disenfranchised amongst us to having their bloody “say” no matter what the cost to those around them? JWR