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Theater review: 'The Madness of George III' at the Old Globe

July 5, 2010 |  1:47 pm
George "O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!" King Lear cries as he begins to realize how dearly his rashness will cost him -- leaving him without daughters, home or country.

Yet is Lear, perhaps, better off mad? That question resonates among the psychological complexities of Shakespeare's "King Lear." It also resounds through Alan Bennett's 1991 play "The Madness of George III," about another troubled monarch.

In each play, the seeming loss of sanity is accompanied by a shutdown of social filters. Thoughts and emotions rush forth unrestrained. The kings become like children again; they are closer to their natural states, more truly themselves. They are free.

Such comparisons are invited this summer by the presence of both "King Lear" and "George" in the Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival. The third play, "The Taming of the Shrew," is also, in its way, about madness and social filters. All are performed on the Globe's outdoor stage.

"Lear" is already running and reviewed; "George" -- more widely known in its 1994 film adaptation, "The Madness of King George" -- opened Saturday. The former perfectly sets up the latter, so it's too bad the occasion is spoiled by the choice to render most of "George's" historical personages as broad caricatures. The approach -- which diminishes the script to a sort of 18th century political cartoon -- is entertaining in its own right but never approaches the sweetness or heartbreak of Nicholas Hytner's movie version.

As portrayed by Miles Anderson, Britain's King George (he of the breakaway Colonies) is a genial sort, if a bit full of himself. This latter quality is part of Bennett's -- and Shakespeare's -- point. Wouldn't anyone be warped by the ego inflation inherent in a king's (or, for that matter, a politician's) life of power flexing and extravagant but empty ceremony?

Such hollowness is nicely indicated by the towering, vacuous mirrors that line Ralph Funicello's palatial set design and the sumptuously layered and padded period costumes by Deirdre Clancy. (A hint of this late-18th century look is seen, as well, in her designs for "Lear," creating a subtle visual connection.)

Bennett's gently humorous script gives us time to begin to like George before illness leaves him shuddering, gasping and rocking in pain.

The forthrightness with which Anderson conveys this suffering is touching, but it can't fully register because everything around him is false. Both "George" and "Lear" are directed by Adrian Noble, head of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1991-2003 and, this year, artistic director of the Globe's Shakespeare Festival. In "Lear," he coaxes forth subtle shadings; here, he seems intent merely on squeezing out laughs.

Compared to the movie, the play provides a bit more context for the crisis in George's government. In parliament, we see deep division between parties. We see familiar forms of backroom maneuvering. And we see commentators put spin on it all.

This nicely sets up the play's most famous line, when the proto-psychiatrist Dr. Willis (portrayed, in a fun patient-to-physician turnaround, by the festival's Lear, Robert Foxworth) observes: "The state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier." It's the madness observable in every politician: The fallacy of thinking that any of us, barely able to govern ourselves, could govern a country.

-- Daryl H. Miller, from San Diego

"The Madness of George III," the Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. In repertory through Sept. 24; contact theater for schedule. $29 to $78. (619) 234-5623 or Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Photo: Miles Anderson portrays "mad" King George. Credit: The Old Globe.