by Lynn on May 30, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Kevin Bennett
Set by Ken MacDonald
Costumes by Christopher David Gauthier
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Music direction and sound design by Joseph Tritt
Cast: Lisa Berry
Ryan Cunningham
Rebecca Gibian
Cameron Grant
Martin Pahher
Marci T. House
Andrew Lawrie
Tom McCamus
Patrick McManus
Jim Mezon
Chick Reid
André Sills

A production crammed on a small stage with a muddle of movement, costumes and activity that doesn’t illuminate the play to its best, and more concerning looks like a copy of the set and some of the activity of a production of Richard III in London a few years ago, coincidentally directed by Tim Carroll, the new Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival.

The Story. The affable, curious King George III of England is going through a rough time. (And it’s not just the American Revolution he must contend with—yes he is that King. And the one in the musical Hamilton who has the most melodic songs). He suffers from excruciating stomach pains that get worse with every treatment his doctors give him. His mind is affected. It is thought he might be going mad. More doctors are brought in to bleed him, blister him and all manner of torturous treatments. Nothing helps. He gets worse.

In the meantime, government must be run. His courtiers try their best to move things along. His son, the greedy, power-hungry Prince Regent angles and manoeuvres his way into becoming his father’s replacement (without telling his father, of course). The knives are out to gain power. The doctors all have differing ideas of what is wrong with George III. And still George III suffers.

The Production. I am startled by the set. It’s not because it’s brilliant and evocative, but because I have seen it before, in a different production, in the West End in 2012 for the production of Richard III directed by Tim Carroll and designed by Jenny Tiramani. That set had an ornate, two tiered seating structure on both sides of the stage with audience members sitting in the structures. Upstage was an ornate doorway with side entranceways. One might say it is evocative of the Sam Wanamaker theatre that is part of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

The set at the Shaw Festival for The Madness of George III has an ornate, two tiered seating structure on both sides of the stage with audience members sitting in the structures. Upstage is an opening for entrances etc. with side entranceways.

The set for The Madness of George III is designed by Ken MacDonald. I know Mr. MacDonald’s work. His sets have wit, whimsy, establish the place of the play and its time with imagination and creativity and are not necessarily constricted by convention. This specific set for The Madness of George III is not like MacDonald’s regular work. And because it is so close to Jenny Tiramani’s design in London, I am concluding that MacDonald was told by his director Kevin Bennett exactly what to create. Yes, I realize when I jump to conclusions I might fall on my ass-umptions but I’m taking the chance. It gets more troubling. The clues are just too coincidental.

While the audience files into the Royal George Theatre, Tom McCamus, who plays George III, wanders out on the set partially in costume and chats up the audience members sitting in the on stage seating structures. He looks out to wave to the audience too.

In Tim Carroll’s 2012 production of Richard III in the West End, Mark Rylance, as Richard III, wandered out on stage in partial costume as the audience filed in and affably chatted up the audience members sitting in the on stage seating structures. As I recall, he also waved to the arriving audience too.

The production of The Madness of George III ends in a rousing dance by the whole cast just before they all bow.

Tim Carroll’s 2012 production of Richard III ended with a rousing dance by the whole cast just before they all bow (as they do for all productions that originate at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre).

One can’t ignore the infinitesimal degrees of separation between Tim Carroll and Kevin Bennett. Carroll directed Richard III at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and then when it transferred to the Apollo Theatre in the West End.

Kevin Bennett was a member of the 2014 Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction at the Stratford Festival. He was also the assistant director for Tim Carroll on his 2014 Stratford production of King John.

Now Tim Carroll is in his first year of his tenure as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. Kevin Bennett has been hired to direct The Madness of George III and the production is just too close in set design and other directorial ‘touches’ to Carroll’s production of Richard III to be ignored as coincidence. Very troubling.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a modicum of originality and invention from a director at the Shaw Festival.

And then there is Kevin Bennett’s direction of the actual production of The Madness of George III. The costumes by Christopher David Gauthier are sumptuous, full of swirling ability what with all those long-trained capes, full-hooped gowns and the rich material for the men’s attire. The problem is that they all have to navigate the small stage of the Royal George Theatre (made even smaller with those on-stage seating structures) and it all looks like so much jammed traffic. Bennett has created so much constant motion of the characters entering, exiting and swirling, that actually taking the time to establish relationships is given short shrift.

Rather than cram another actor on the crowded stage to play another character, Bennett has Marci T. House play both Thurlow and Dr. Pepys at the same time. (A character’s gender is often ignored in casting here). In one scene House plays Thurlow and then changes hats and wears glasses for Dr. Pepys in the same scene. A character on stage behind House holds the hat and glasses, ready to give to her to wear. It is so fascinating? Distracting? watching Marci T. House change in a flash from one character to the next in the same scene, that what the characters are actually saying is lost in the blur of the activity. I don’t think that’s a good thing when one is in there to hear the words.

I am grateful for this hard-working cast, beginning with Tom McCamus as George III. McCamus is charming, curious and on the ball as the smart King, and just as quickly turns into the raving, confused, disoriented man who has lost his way. McCamus negotiates these startling changes with finesse. This is a wonderful portrait of a monarch who is both present and also succumbs to the depths of despair and madness.

As Pitt, André Sills is distinguished, courtly, patient and concerned for his monarch and for the government. His quiet anxiety to get George to sign documents is compelling. As courtly as Sills is playing Pitt, he is as flighty and effete playing Dr. Warren.

Lisa Berry as Lady Pembroke has such poise and grace. Lisa Berry has mastered stillness and that makes her riveting.

Comment. Playwright Alan Bennett has written a wonderful, bracing play about a fascinating character in history and his troubling physical and mental ailments. Present day doctors have analysed George III symptoms and have come up with all manner of diagnoses from bi-polar disorder to Acute Intermittent Porphyria. Bennett has also illuminated the many and various horrible treatments George III had to endure because of competitive and often disreputable doctors who attended him.

While all that was going on there was government to run, and here too Alan Bennett with his razor wit and sharp observations shows the political manoeuvring, the jostling for power and the mendacity of the government at the time and the honourable courtiers trying to protect the king and still make the government work.

Unfortunately, because of director Kevin Bennett’s unnecessarily busy production with little attention to establishing the finer points of creating relationships and be true to the depth of the play, his production is a confused muddle.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Opened: May 26, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Simon Webb May 30, 2017 at 4:28 pm

One should never respond to reviews, except on matters of fact. As a witness and to a very small extent a participant in the intitial processes for this production, (months before design work at Shaw began), I would like to reassure readers that although Tim Carroll offers great support for Kevin Bennett’s process, Bennett was well on his way with his approach before meeting and working with Mr Carroll. The idea for the set is, of course, not original – it originates directly in Georgian theatre design; it’s function in this production is to place the fourth wall behind the players, so that the play is brought to the audience, rather than the other way around we have been used to for two centuries. Certainly you may regard Bennett as a Carroll protege in part, but the similarities in style are there because they have very similar aims and methods, not because a chela is making offerings to his guru. Another issue, perhaps, is that this approach to theatre is frankly populist, which means that each audient is able to be caught up in a group experience – not the mannered spectator experience that has quite worn this writer’s ass to the bone. I expect one wouldn’t say that Carroll owes a debt to Bennett for Saint Joan; but for one who knows some of the philosophy and method of the work, the connection is obvious. A notepad on the knee never helps, of course, and I sympathise with the problem of disengagement that always hampers critics. Without engagement, there is no art, anywhere, ever. As for originality, reviving a play is not original, Alan Bennett’s story is not original, his point about medicine (or anything else in his writing) is not original, revisiting antique theatre design is not original – filling a house with cheering ticket-buyers, however….


2 Mark Kennedy July 28, 2017 at 6:23 pm

I attended last night’s performance. We sat on stage and enjoyed the experience of proximity and involvement.
I am with you on the distraction of role interchange.
I walked into the night troubled more with the fuzzy qualities of the play rather than the turmoil of the production.
The play seems all bones and no meat. Makes for a very thin soup….


3 david schurmann August 14, 2017 at 9:48 pm

Hi Lynn,
Can’t find the original review in my browser any more
David x