THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III. Drama by Alan Bennett. Produced by Britain's Royal National Theatre. Starring Nigel Hawthorne. At Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Baltimore, Oct. 12 to 31, and the Colonial Theatre, Boston, Nov. 2 to 14.
PLAYWRIGHT Alan Bennett has seized upon a fascinating bit of historical trivia to serve as the inspiration for his latest play, ``The Madness of George III,'' performed by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and currently on tour in the United States.
During a period of several months in 1788-89, the British monarch, best known for losing the American colonies, suffered from an illness that at the time was presumed to be madness but is now thought to have been porphyria.
The avuncular king, who is seen at the beginning of the play gleefully cuddling his wife, whom he calls ``Mrs. King,'' is soon reduced to a pitiful figure, unable to control his bodily functions or his thought processes. This produces a series of political machinations, as the prime minister (Julian Wadham) struggles to keep the king's rule intact.
His court, aghast at the monarch's rapid disintegration, is soon tripping over doctors, and the heart of Bennett's wickedly savage play concerns the indignities forced upon the king by his would-be healers.
Although the court doctors are relatively harmless and ineffective, Dr. Francis Willis (Clive Merrison) is particularly damaging. King George is bound and gagged, strapped into a chair, his body seared by white-hot glass cups. Here, the cure is worse than the disease. At the end of Act I, when a terrified George screams, ``I am the king of England,'' the dispassionate answer is, ``No, sir, you are the patient.''
Bennett's narrative is not particularly strong, since the plot basically consists of George getting sick and then getting better. The three-hour play is needlessly attenuated, but it does contain patches of wonderful writing, particularly a riotous scene in which the king, as part of his therapy, reads aloud passages from ``King Lear.''
``I didn't know what it was about,'' his doctor sheepishly confesses.
The characters are mostly one-dimensional, but they are an entertaining array of fops and fools, and Bennett's satirical writing presents a gallery of royal sycophants who have, no doubt, many present-day parallels.
Nicholas Hynter's staging must cope with dozens of scene changes, and this talented director (``Miss Saigon'' is one of his credits) manages to create a cinematic flow and a series of emotionally arresting tableaux, particularly with the opening and closing scenes depicting the advance and retreat of the court.
What burns the evening into memory is Nigel Hawthorne's performance as the king. This wonderful English actor, whose last appearance here, in ``Shadowlands,'' netted him a Tony Award, presents a dazzling portrait of a complex man, comic yet threatening, powerful yet helpless, trapped by a disease he cannot control.
Hawthorne uses his body to make us acutely aware of George's torment. He is also, and this is not to be underestimated, supremely funny; his portrayal is a large part of what makes ``The Madness of George III'' so entertaining as well as tragic.
* An article on the Royal National Theatre, including an interview with Nigel Hawthorne, was published in the Monitor on Sept. 16.