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What to do? What to review when the Stratford and Shaw Festivals are cancelled and the civilized world has shut its doors? You know times are tough when you turn on your television and seek solace against a pandemic and cultural drought.

But all is not lost.

You can revisit Greek mythology as seen by Euripides in the fifth century B.C. and fashioned into an opera by Gluck in the 18th century. You can also pay a visit to 18th century English history as molded into a ploy by Alan Bennett in the 20th century.

The National Theatre of Great Britain is politely streaming Bennett’s 1991 play The Madness of George III. They give us the 2018 Nottingham Theatre production which many of us saw on the big screen a year and a half ago. It is worth seeing again for the quality of the production and the extraordinary play itself.

The Metropolitan Opera is treating us to a broadcast of Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Iphigénie en Tauride which was first seen on theatre screens in 2011.

Wadsworth gives the opera a primitive, indeed barbaric feel. We first see the sacrifice of Iphigenia and her rescue by Artemis. It is a dream in fact that Iphigenia is having in her temple in Aulis where she is the high priestess and performing human sacrifices for the Scythian King Thoas to appease the gods.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is a superb Iphigenia, frightened, troubled, lost. She makes full use of her dramatic voice and expresses the heroine’s deep emotional struggle to perfection. Tenor Placido Domingo has the vocal power and expressiveness to play Orestes but one cannot escape the impression that he is simply too old to play Iphigenia’s brother. Youthful tenor Paul Groves plays Orestes’ bosom friend Pylades and he looks a couple of generations younger than Domingo. Baritone Gordon Hawkins sings a powerful and primitive King Thoas.

Wadsworth brings in the specters of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and he re-enacts the murder of the former by the latter. He adds considerable dancing choregraphed by Daniel Pelzig. Iphigénie en Tauride can seem static at times but Wadsworth never lets that happen with his dynamic directing.

Patrick Summers conducts the Met Opera Orchestra in this outstanding production.

Bennett’s play is episodic and deals of King George’s “madness” of course, the treatment, indeed torment, that he receives from his “doctors” and the political infighting between the politicians and the machinations of the execrable Prince of Wales to gain power.

The central character is King George and Mark Gatiss gives a performance of astonishing effectveness in the role. He begins as the arrogant, entitled monarch who may not be spoken to directly nor touched by or asked a direct question even by a doctor. Gatiss gives us the epitome of a person who considers himself superior to mere mortals.

The king’s mind starts to unravel quickly and he becomes a babbling fool. Gatiss has mastered physical movements such as bobbing his head, speaking nonsense and showing us a human being deteriorating into a mass of confusion, pain and hell. A nuanced, powerful, and relentlessly compelling performance.

Nicholas Bishop as Prime Minister William Pitt is a defender of the king and an astute albeit rather dour politician. He faces the wily Charles Fox (Amanda Hadingue) and his cohorts, the treacherous Lord Thurlow (David Hounslow) and the power-hungry Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding).

The political machinations are nothing compared to the attempts by a bunch of quacks who try to give medical attention. Looking at the colour of his urine, checking his stool specimens, inflicting injuries to his body, tying him up in a straitjacket are just a few of the treatments, nay tortures, inflicted on the hapless king. Again, Gatiss does outstanding work suffering throughout these procedures as he shows his agony.

Adrian Scarborough as Dr. Willis stands out among the quacks. He is supposed to run a psychiatric hospital and he puts himself to breaking the king down as if he were a horse. He is merciless and unwavering in his conviction, no less than the other charlatans, that he can cure the king.

In the original version of the play Bennett included a character, a modern doctor named Ida Macalpine. She explains that George III was suffering from porphyria, a metabolic disorder that caused symptoms similar to dementia but he was not mad. Even though the play ends on a triumphal note, the king had another attack in 1802 and took leave of his senses for good in 1810. He never recovered and died deaf and blind in 1820.

Director Adam Penford omitted Macalpine and we are left with the impression that poor George was not mad but had all the symptoms of madness. What is the difference?

Sitting in front of the tube may not be the same as a visit to the theatre but, as they said about George’s porphyria as opposed to madness, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

June 19, 2020

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