Royal National Theatre Pays a Call

Britain's preeminent company begins a tour of the United States, staying true to its original mission and mandate

THE touring company of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain is back in the United States. Last year it toured with Shakespeare's ``Richard III,'' starring Sir Ian McKellen. This time Nigel Hawthorne, who is well known to Broadway and public television audiences, gets his chance in ``The Madness of George III,'' a new play by one of Britain's foremost playwrights, Alan Bennett.

This bold 2 3/4-hour production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, with a cast of 23 actors and 22 staff and crew, takes audiences back to 1788 to uncover some little-known facts about the monarch's apparent insanity.

Unlike his two predecessors, George III was educated in England and was the first sovereign since Queen Anne to speak his subjects' language without a foreign accent. He was a kindly, deeply religious man with a love of farming and craftsmanship that made him popular outside London where he was known as ``Farmer George.''

Although King George was determined to improve the moral tone of the court, the problems associated with the American and French Revolutions and the disloyalty of some of his trusted ministers, coupled with bouts of severe illness, rendered him virtually helpless. He had not only his own incipient madness to deal with, but the impatience of an heir who would keep him mad, and the ambition of the doctors who stood to profit from that madness by applying cruel and humiliating treatments in the name of 18th-century medical science.

Yet, ultimately, the play celebrates a royal spirit that refuses to submit to intrigues of any kind.

These US tours by the National Theatre, which have been happening since 1970, require funding independent of the regular subsidy provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It comes mainly from sponsorship. But the special effort is worth it, says Genista (Jenny) McIntosh, executive director.

``We recognize that when we go abroad we pick up influences and are open to experience that we can't easily get any other way,'' she says. ``We meet theater practitioners, we see work, and we encounter cultural differences which are an important part of how we feed the work we do here. So it accomplishes a huge range of objectives without which [we] would be very much diminished.'' Limitless repertoire

But why this ambitious, harrowing production of ``The Madness of George III''?

``Because it's been a huge success in London,'' Ms. McIntosh says, ``and because to some extent it's about the United States and the king who lost [the country] for Great Britain. And there's a fine irony in that, that I think everyone can enjoy. It's Alan Bennett at his absolute finest: stimulating and enjoyable.''

Head of press relations Stephen Wood, who, like McIntosh, has an office overlooking the River Thames, is quick to point out that there is no drama school attached to the National Theatre.

``Actors [and others] who join the National are required to be full-fledged professionals with equity cards. It's seen as a center of excellence representing the best of what the nation has,'' he says.

Many people confuse the work of the Royal National Theatre with that of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

``The major difference,'' Mr. Wood explains, ``is that they have a house playwright - William Shakespeare. Our repertoire is limitless. [We are required] to do what we perceive to be the best of world drama, including the most modern plays - many of them by British playwrights like David Hare, Tom Stoppard, and Alan Bennett.''

There's always been a friendly rivalry between the two companies, and freedom of movement. The first director of the RSC was the second director of the National Theatre - Sir Peter Hall. Trevor Nunn recently directed a Stoppard play after a long association with the RSC. McIntosh spent most of her career with the RSC before transferring to the National Theatre three years ago, and appears to revel in the breadth of her new work.

``The major thing is to stay alive while mixing classical and modern theater ... established writers and new writers ... well-known actors and lesser-known actors ... directors, designers, and so on.'' McIntosh says. ``With three theaters open 52 weeks a year we have an awful lot of performances to produce, so we have a few copper-bottom things at all times so that we can take risks at other times.''

She readily admits that the National's foray into American musicals might be considered a risk - especially with knowledgeable American tourists among its most critical patrons. A revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical ``Carousel,'' which played to enthusiastic audiences earlier this year, has been transferred from the National to the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End. (This production of ``Carousel'' will also turn up at Lincoln Center in New York next spring.) The foray into musicals

McIntosh says such money-spinning musicals are not new to the National. Olivier was desperate to do ``Guys and Dolls,'' and would have tackled it many years ago had he not fallen ill. It was eventually directed in the early 1980s by the current head of the National Theatre, Richard Eyre. Other musical productions have included Marvin Hamlisch's ``Jean,'' and Stephen Sondheim's ``Sunday in the Park with George'' and ``Sweeney Todd.'' McIntosh calls this venture into the musical field ``tremendous fun.''

``It's very hard work. And we have to be humble about it, because there are many things about producing these great American musicals that we don't know,'' she says. ``But I think that the production of `Carousel' has demonstrated that there can be a very happy synthesis between the best of our particular theater tradition - our directors, our designers, and our actors bringing their particular strengths to it - and the extraordinary durability and depth of feeling that those musicals represent.

``[Musicals] have a direct route to the hearts of an audience in a way that almost nothing else has. And so it's a tremendous joy to work on them, and an even greater joy when, having worked on them, they turn into an enormous success,'' McIntosh says.

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