Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Madness of George III
Old Globe Theatre

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Miles Anderson (center) with (l. to r.) Steven Marzolf, Shirine Babb, Ben Diskant and Emily Swallow
A traditional way of organizing a summer Shakespeare festival, such as the one now playing through the end of September at San Diego's Old Globe, is to present a tragedy, a comedy and a history.  Interestingly enough, that's the way Adrian Noble has organized the 2010 festival that marks the Globe's 75th season.  Except, the "history" play isn't Shakespeare at all but a contemporary playwright whose imagination runs to Shakespearean spectacle.

Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III turns out to be an excellent choice for a history play.  Although contemporary (its 1991 premiere helped to open the newly constructed National Theatre complex in London), it sizzles with a combination of heraldry, politics and psychology.  It contains the juiciest of leading roles, a prominent second leading role, and lots of potential for memorable performances in the featured roles.  For American audiences (who may know Mr. Bennett's The History Boys better than this play), there is a lesson about the British king against whom the colonists rebelled that is rarely mentioned in the U.S.  And, for the Old Globe, Madness features a large cast, so the entire repertory company, save Jonno Roberts who has large roles in the other two plays, appears in it.

Like many of Shakespeare's histories, Madness starts slowly, focuses on personalities and the political and social milieu of the times, and doesn't really get chugging until later.  The Globe's acting company follows suit, more or less slogging its way through the lengthy exposition, only to be energized by the appearance, just before intermission, of Robert Foxworth.

Americans know George III as a despotic ruler whose milking of the colonies' finances triggered the independence revolt he so richly deserved.  Mr. Bennett portrays him as a strong and politically savvy monarch who won some degree of royal authority back from Parliament, who was served well by youthful and fiscally conservative Prime Minister William Pitt, and who deeply loved his wife, Queen Charlotte, and the music of George Frederic Handel (though, it was his grandfather, George II, who started the tradition of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus).  George was devoutly religious and, politically, he resembled Margaret Thatcher, whose Tory government held sway during the time that Mr. Bennett was writing his play. 

Later in his life, George developed what physicians now say was probably porphyria, a genetic blood disorder.  The symptoms of the disease can resemble dementia.  Because of his disability, George's son, the Prince of Wales, was appointed Regent and ruled in his stead until his death, when the son ascended to the throne as George IV.  Mr. Bennett sets up a different telling, however, as he places the prince in league with leaders of the Whig opposition, Charles James Fox and, interestingly enough, the satirical playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  The political showdown of the play comes as the prince's forces maneuver to garner the votes needed to install the prince as Regent, while a former cleric turned early-day psychiatrist (Mr. Foxworth) emerges from a country asylum to cure the King of his madness.

Mr. Noble's production features a funhouse of mirrors, which Ralph Funicello's unit design for all of the productions accommodates neatly.  The mirrors double as doors that swing open and shut in formal ways as the scene moves from the ceremony of court, to the chambers of the political opponents, and to the King's private residence at Windsor Castle.  It also features a towering performance from Miles Anderson as the mad monarch. Mr. Anderson goes from regal to demented and back again with both physical and psychological intensity, a performance all the more stunning considering that he replaced Patrick Page (who withdrew to honor his commitment to the Spiderman musical that opens this fall in New York) two days before rehearsals began.

Mr. Foxworth matches Mr. Anderson move for move, and electricity is in the air whenever the two are on stage together.  The most touching scene comes late in the play.  As the King is recovering, he takes up reading Shakespeare, and one scene has him portraying the mad King Lear while his Lord Chancellor (Charles Janasz, in a cunning performance) plays Cordelia, and the king's pages take on the other roles.  Mr. Foxworth, who is playing Lear on other evenings this summer, sits on the sidelines watching with quiet intensity as one king recovers his sanity by discovering the madness of another.  It is a beautiful moment and well worth the price of admission by itself.

Would that there were more such moments, however.  The rest of the company plays the pomp and politics well enough (Mr. Noble keeps things moving splendidly), but sparks do not fly as they should.  Fortunately, Deirdre Clancy's costumes make the proceedings endlessly interesting to look at, if not enjoy.  And there are some standouts among the featured players, including Emily Swallow's Queen Charlotte, Jay Whittaker as the ever-worried Pitt, and Grayson DeJesus, who delivers a very funny turn as the nearly wordless Ramsden.

With Mr. Anderson's fascinating performance and Mr. Foxworth's carefully constructed counterweight, however, this flawed evening is still a must-see.

The Madness of George III performs in repertory June 19 —September 24, 2010, at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre on the Old Globe campus in San Diego's Balboa Park.  Tickets ($29 - $78) are available by calling the Old Globe box office at (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623], or by visiting The Old Globe's website.

The Old Globe presents The Madness of George III, by Alan Bennett.  Directed by Adrian Noble with Ralph Funicello (Scenic Design), Deirdre Clancy (Costume Design), Alan Burrett (Lighting Design), Christopher R. Walker (Sound Design), Steve Rankin (Fight Director), Claudia Hill-Sparks (Vocal and Dialect Coach) and James Latus (Stage Manager).

The cast includes Michael Stewart Allen (Fox), Miles Anderson (George III), Shirine Babb (Lady Pembroke), Donald Carrier (Sheridan), Andrew Dahl (Prince of Wales), Grayson DeJesus (Ramsden), Ben Diskant (Greville), Craig Dudley (Dundas), Christian Durso (Braun), Robert Foxworth (Dr. Willis), Kevin Hoffmann (Duke of York), Andrew Hutcheson (Fortnum), Charles Janasz (Thurlow), Joseph Marcell (Sir George Baker), Steven Marzolf (Captain Fitzroy), Jordan McArthur (Papandiek), Brooke Novak (Margaret Nicholson), Ryman Sneed (Maid), Adrian Sparks (Sir Lucas Pepys, Sir Boothby Skrymshir), Emily Swallow (Queen Charlotte), Bruce Turk (Dr. Richard Warren) and Jay Whittaker (William Pitt) with Catherine Gowl, Aubrey Saverino and Bree Welch (Ensemble).

Photo: The Old Globe  

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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