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There’s Method to his Madness

17 November 2018 | Rosa Johnston-Flint

Mark Gatiss takes on the title role in The Madness of George III, which will be broadcast nationwide for NT Live from – for the first time – Nottingham Playhouse. It’s a period romp that sends a chilling echo down the years: one that marvels at the relentless squabble for power, and the treatment of vulnerable people in its wake.

Nestled in leafy Wellington Circus, a spot it has occupied since 1963, you could almost be forgiven for missing Nottingham Playhouse in this quiet corner of the city – that is, if it didn’t have a huge sweeping sculpture by Anish Kapoor sitting in front of it.
 
The posters for this latest revival of Alan Bennett’s tragicomic retelling of monarch vs. madness are by no means spectacular, sitting quietly in the foyer windows. And yet there’s a palpable sense that this production is something a bit special, the foyer bustling with a healthy audience as the theatre awaits its first moment in the limelight for the National Theatre’s immensely popular ‘NT Live’ broadcast to cinemas.
 
Mark Gatiss is perhaps best known as one of the League of Gentlemen and as Mycroft Holmes in the smash-hit Sherlock reboot, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. He was also seen in Taboo alongside Tom Hardy in the role of George IV – ironically George III's heir, who assumed the throne as Regent when his ‘mad’ father relapsed.
 
In graduating from Prince Regent to King, Gatiss proves himself a natural protagonist, which may surprise audiences used to seeing him flourish in supporting roles, so it is a real treat to see him grapple with a complex character like George III.
 
Photo: Debra Gillett and Mark Gatiss in The Madness of George III - November 2018 P © Nottingham Playhouse
 
In some respects, Mark Gatiss’s interpretation is the whole point of this revival: Adam Penford, the show’s director, was working with Mark on another play, and saw the potential for a “perfect match of role and performer.” According to Penford, “Mark effortlessly balances comedic skill with pathos and a sense of the absurd and macabre, which is perfect for the king and the journey he goes on.”
 
Gatiss gives a contradictory and nuanced performance that is on one hand terrifying, both as a comandeering King and during his unravelling – he is the victim of a grossly misunderstood illness, not to mention the treatments that go with it – whilst the other hand clings to the audience’s hearts. We are repulsed by him, for him, and most of all by everything to which he is subjected. Perhaps the ease with which Mark Gatiss whips up a Frankensteinian regal recipe shouldn’t be a surprise, given his expertise in the Horror genre: he is a notorious aficionado, and has presented his own TV and radio documentaries on the topic.
 
The first half of the play ends on a grotesque parody of a coronation, with the soaring chorus of Zadok the Priest heralding a new era, one in which the king does not adopt on a throne, but is instead shoved into a chair with arm and leg restraints and a metal loop that ‘crowns’ his head, keeping it pinned in place.
 
Photo: David Hounslow, Amanda Hadingue, Louise Jameson in The Madness of George III - November 2018 P © Nottingham Playhouse 
 
Gatiss is supported by a stellar cast, including Adrian Scarborough, who is a familiar mainstay of screen and stage. The colour, gender and disability-blind casting also helps this 1991 play feel fresh and relevant – or rather, neatly side-steps the feeling that it is just a vehicle for Mark Gatiss’s brilliance. Female actors play about half of the doctors and politicians – barely decipherable in period costume and wigs – giving a wider scope to the endless tug-of-war for power and remedy within the royal household. They are tenacious and funny as opposed to strong or sympathetic – they are simply part of the cast, humans in the story, and that perhaps that is the most powerful point that diverse casting could make.
 
The Madness of George III runs until Saturday 24th November, with nationwide broadcast to cinemas as part of NT Live on Tuesday 20th November. You’d be mad to miss it.

For more information and to book tickets, visit the Nottingham Playhouse website.

For NT Live, see here.

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