What do you do when the leader of your country is not mentally fit to do the job? When his behaviour becomes so erratic that it can no longer be ignored? When cronies and suspicious figures lurk by his side, casting doubt as to who is truly in control of government?
These all-too-familiar questions lie at the heart of The Madness of George III (written by Alan Bennett), an excellent and enthusiastically played look at the true mental health struggles of the 18th century English monarch, currently playing at the Shaw Festival.
King George (Tom McCamus) is happy, and on top of his game: he rides a wave of popularity, leads a politically stable government, and is deeply in love with his wife, Queen Charlotte (Chick Reid, McCamus’ real-life partner). The Whigs, led by Mr. Fox (Jim Mezon), oppose an absolute monarchy, but have no real influence and are of little concern to the King.
Soon though, George comes down with a mysterious illness, and is plagued by incessant talking, fits of rage and sentimentality, and prolonged insomnia. Various opportunistic physicians swoop in to administer their crackpot remedies, and the King’s political opponents gather to exploit his vulnerability.
McCamus gives a powerhouse performance as the ailing King, at various points witty, powerful, pathetic and yes, maddening. The veteran actor blusters about the stage and in the house, raving and rambling, cracking wise, and generally having a fine time until he is hamstrung by his character’s malady. His physical performance is robust and captivating.
The rest of the muscular ensemble steps up under McCamus’ leadership, and the result is a tight, enthusiastic romp that picks you up and carries you effortlessly for almost three hours.
First-time Shaw director Kevin Bennett makes a strong impression, including many meta-theatrical elements in his production. Patrons in box seats (situated directly on the stage, in the 18th century style) are encouraged to participate by means of wearing masks and throwing roses. The characters often stray into the house and interact with the audience, including several moments of lowbrow humour in which patrons inspect a glass bowl filled with the King’s solid waste.
The brazenness extends to the staging as well. Often, one actor will play multiple characters simultaneously, jumping back and forth between wigs and hats in scenes reminiscent of Whose Line is it Anyway. A bold move, perhaps, and one that seemed to catch the seasoned Shaw audience a little off-guard, but within the world of play, it works.
All of these elements combine to create an atmosphere of electricity in the room. Each performance is unique, and partially created on the spot every time.
The joy of watching McCamus’ mastery of his craft alone is worth the price of admission, and the rest is a sumptuous feast of extras. When heading to Shaw, don’t miss out on the Madness.
The Madness of George III runs at the Royal George Theatre until Oct. 15. Visit shawfest.com for tickets and information.