Mad George III Gropes Ladies as Politicians Plot: London Stage

David Haig, center, with Orlando James, Beruce Khan, Ryan Saunders and Peter McGovern in "The Madness of George III," by Alan Bennett, at the Apollo Theatre in London. It is now commonly believed that King George's symptoms were caused by a rare blood disease, porphyria. Photographer: Robert Day/Arthur Leone PR via Bloomberg

The subject of Alan Bennett’s play “The Madness of King George III” couldn’t be more timely. What happens when those with absolute power take a wrong turn?

The 1991 play, now at the Apollo Theatre in London, is based on events in 1788. George III, an energetic and hardworking monarch, starts suffering from bouts of mental instability. One moment he’s sane. The next, he’s babbling gibberish or publicly groping ladies-in-waiting.

The title role is a feast for David Haig, who recently appeared as another leader scrabbling at the cliff-face of sanity in the hit comedy “Yes, Prime Minister.” The authority, energy and terror pour out of him like a tsunami.

The drama is set in a period when the monarch had real political power. Prime Minister William Pitt can’t afford to lose the support of the crown, and pretends things are fine. Courtiers, forbidden from questioning what royalty does, ignore the strange behavior too.

Bennett milks plenty of humor from this situation, and neatly skewers the self-serving toadies who surround those in power. “The state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier,” is the pithy remark of one observer.

The tubby Prince of Wales (Christopher Keegan) believes he will be made regent. “The throne! What fun!” he squeals.

Royal Willpower

Eventually, doctors are called in. Doctor Willis prescribes the king to be bound and gagged every time his madness appears. He must learn to fight his malady, and to conquer it by willpower.

Suddenly the comedy is left behind, and we’re in a more troubling space. Kindly Dr. Willis (Clive Francis) is no monster, and he cares deeply for his patient. The results of his brutal methods are therefore all the more shocking. The king’s terrified pleas for clemency, and his whimpers of pain, are heartbreaking.

His recovery at the end has emotional impact. It’s made all the more poignant by the fact that the real George III lost his senses again in 1810, and never regained them. The Prince of Wales got his regency in the end.

Director Christopher Luscombe serves up a handsome period-costume show. Loud bursts of Handel’s music help create colorful scenes of pomp and pageantry that are cleverly juxtaposed with images of the king’s suffering. The backroom politicking between Pitt and his rival Charles Fox are clear.

The effect is spoiled somewhat by creaky autocue acting from a couple of cast members. Occasionally you have to re-suspend your disbelief to get back in the swing.

The benefits are great when you do. It’s a play with laughs, ideas, wit, a touching central performance, and a happy ending. Just what the doctor ordered.

Rating: ***.

Home Movies

The same can’t be said of “Travelling Light,” a new play by Nicholas Wright at the National Theatre. It’s laugh-free, idea-empty and as touching as skin on your coffee.

We’re in a Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe, around 1900. Young Motl Mendl inherits his uncle’s movie camera and starts filming the locals. The local timber merchant Jacob Bindel (Antony Sher) offers to finance a made-up story instead, and we watch the town pool resources to make a weepie melodrama.

Mendl’s assistant Anna suggests splicing different scenes together. Bingo! She has discovered editing. Bindel shows the film to his family for critical feedback. Bingo! He has created the audience preview. The zoom lens, the dolly shot, the movie theater and the silent caption are all “discovered” in this would-be heartwarming, comical manner.

Peasant Shtick

An older Mendl, who has become a top Hollywood director, drops in from time to time to act as a narrator figure. Take a gas mask, or you’ll gag on the clouds of sepia.

It’s all rather pointless, and tells us little about the real history of cinema or of Jews in the movie industry. The tone veers all over the place: a clunky coincidence in Act 2 sends the story spinning wildly out of focus.

Nicholas Hytner’s direction feels as lackluster as the play itself, and Sher does an off-the-peg patriarchal-peasant shtick which makes you want to throw bagels at him.

It makes “Fiddler on the Roof” look like a hard-nosed documentary. Come back Topol, all is forgiven.

Rating: *.

“The Madness of George III” is at the Apollo Theatre through March 31. Information: or +44-844-412-4658.

“Travelling Light” is in repertory at the National Theatre. Information: or +44-20-7452-3000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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