Kingship in a royally troubled mindscape

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(c) Liz Lauren

Harry Groener plays King George III at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

Review: “The Madness of George III,” by Alan Bennett
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

The magic of Alan Bennett’s engrossing and substantial play “The Madness of George III” depends on a king who can rule the stage in every state of mind. This production boasts a monarch, played by Harry Groener, who commands the heart utterly, whether in coiffed authority or careening about in soiled undergarments, his dignity in tatters and his reign in peril. And yet even in the midst of pathos and madness, we find ourselves subject to one hysterical historical comedy.

George III was king of England when the American colonies threw off British rule. Historically, he was the last in his government to sign off on the separation, and that receding annoyance still resonates in the background of Bennett’s play set about a decade later – closer to the French revolution of 1789. It was a perfectly lucid George III who struggled to retain the colonies and a clear-sighted king we first meet here, a straight-talking pragmatist, unpretentious but unmistakably regal.

It is not long, however, before we – like George’s courtiers, both friends and foes – see the first symptoms of a physical ailment, rashes on his legs and pain in his gut, that soon are accompanied by impaired speech and an inability to concentrate, then increasingly severe signs of dementia. George appears to be lost to his madness, and the vultures are circling – an idle son who can’t wait to seize the throne and a minority party poised to snatch control of Parliament.

From this historical episode in the human comedy, “The Madness of George III,” directed with wit and sympathy by Penny Metropulos and handsomely costumed by Susan E. Mickey, forges touching and compelling theater. It is a tragi-comedy in which there are fools aplenty and dubious behavior is by no means confined to the nominal victim.  

So personal, penetrating and nuanced is Groener’s portrayal of the distressed king that even the strong cast of characters around him seem reduced to mere attendant shadows. As we get to know him as both a public and private figure – cuddling with Mrs. King, as he fondly calls Queen Charlotte, lovingly played by Nora Jones – we’re swiftly won over by his human mingling of worldly wisdom and vulnerability. By the time George shows his first signs of disorder, we’re keenly attuned to Groener’s reactions of shock, disorientation and dismay. We see a man being robbed of his genuine nobility, untrimmed by nature’s changing course but also threatened by the machinations and incompetence of those around him.

Allowing that medicine in the 18th century was not altogether what it is today, the three doctors first summoned to attend the king are clueless to the point of hilarity: the Three Stooges with medical degrees. As one declares upon being shown the king’s purple urine, medicine is about observation and has nothing to do with the color of the patient’s water. The Larry, Curly and Moe dispensing such insights here are the marvelously pompous Bradley Armacost, Patrick Clear and William Dick. They are joined by a fourth, Dr. Willis (the severely forthright James Newcomb), who brooks no fools and helps the king recover his health.

Notable among the stageful of characters, each looking after their own political interests, are Nathan Hosner’s stoic prime minister William Pitt, Richard Baird’s smarmy Prince of Wales, Alex Weisman’s idiotic Duke of York and David Lively’s malleable Lord Chancellor Edward Thurlow.

In an especially affecting vignette, the recovering king and Thurlow read a scene from “King Lear,” with Lively/Thurlow playing Cordelia to Groener/George’s Lear. It is inherently heartbreaking stuff and the parallel to George’s own dementia is quite unsettling. But far from maudlin, the scene proves energizing to the king, who knows “Lear” well and proudly takes his bow for a part sensitively read. Groener’s finely gauged flourish is just one more gem in a royal triumph.

Through June 12. www.chicagoshakes.com. (312) 595-5600.

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.