- The Madness of George III, and: King Lear
"Life is not without its regrets. Life is not without its consolations." Miles Anderson as King George III spoke these words of seasoned perspective toward the end of Adrian Noble's production of The Madness of George III, to which the audience nodded in agreement. Such a statement is devoid of the fiery tempers, whiny laments, and other heated passions that might be expected from someone with less life experience; George has been through a traumatic illness, but he can philosophize about it because he is taking the long view of life—a perspective seemingly shared with the audience attending this production. Indeed, this George demonstrated why theatre need not be all things to all people all of the time, or at least not all at the same time. There was something very refreshing about watching a performance that dealt with the fears and foibles faced by a mature audience; this was theatre aimed at people who have lived and learned for a long time and are still curious about it all, even as the end is no doubt closer than the beginning.
Noble directed both this play and Shakespeare's King Lear to run in repertory as part of San Diego's Old Globe annual Shakespeare festival, and Bennett's play under Noble's direction more than [End Page 106] held its own in such august company. While both plays deal with the nature of power and frailty, the production of George worked in this festival's setting much more effectively than the production of King Lear because of the convergence of audience and location.
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Few other plays—Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance comes to mind—deal with mature adult concerns in a way that could be called refreshing. Noble's production of George was just that, though this is not to say that the audience was the proverbial blue-hair crowd. The older women sitting near me whipped out their iPhones at intermission to learn what they could on the web about George's malady. Of course, The Old Globe has numerous creative and successful programs for youth; for this performance of King Lear, three busloads of high school students arrived dressed in prom-like finery for their evening at the theatre. But in case you suspect I am overstating my point, it was likely not a coincidence that multiple retirement communities and an in-home eldercare service advertised prominently in the festival's program.
In George's world, youth is scorned instead of idealized, and the only romantic love is between a long-married couple, "Mr. King" and "Mrs. King" themselves. (One of the differences that fans of Nicholas Hytner's 1994 film The Madness of King George might have noticed was the absence of the Prince of Wales's "wife.") In this vein, lust, while very much a plot point, is firmly fixed, if somewhat regretfully, in the realm of fantasy. It is felt but, even in madness, not acted upon. Bennett's play is indeed about madness, but not so much about losing one's mind as it is about losing control of one's faculties, life, and country. Here the worst thing that happens—apart from the various doctors' "remedies"—is having one's offspring start deciding what is best. Royal or not, many have been felled by inept doctors and ungrateful, impatient children. The humor in Bennett's play is key to its tonic effect; humor provided respite from the overwhelming and perplexing situation in which George and his cohort find themselves. Imagine the levity that can be found in this...