By Nathalie BRETECHER and Isabelle DUCOS-FILIPPI
Here in France, many of us keep their eyes on the country and praise our major writers and the messages they’ve widely spread to the world. We all have our reasons, but getting out of our « Hexagon » sometimes sounds good, doesn’t it? That’s what Isabelle and I decided to do recently.
We met through the Sherlock fandom and were caught in Mark Gatiss’ work as a writer for, and an actor in, the show. Thus, we thought it would be nice to see him in The madness of George III, as we both share a fondness for literature, history and theatre. The play was performed in 2018 at the Nottingham Playhouse, and directed by Adam Penford.
The play displays a kind of descent in a « mind palace » … portraying what happens when the world’s most powerful man is gradually locked in what, for lack of a better word, his entourage in 1788 calls « madness » (and would be nowadays qualified as bipolar disorders: this is now the most commonly accepted assumption, rather than the one, also quite widespread but now abandoned, of a blood disease). The reactions of people surrounding the monarch, the forces coming out of the shadow to overthrow him, before a temporary recovery brings back some semblance of order. A man of his time too, the age of Enlightenment, in which family life and children become important to everyone and in which knowledge seems to go ahead, even if at a slow pace.
Was the play worth the ride? Definitely. And this would be a very British understatement if we just consider Mark Gatiss’ performance. Because it is simply incredible and mesmerizing. The actor is obviously backed up by a brilliant text. The staging highlights the journey of a helpless man in front of the disease slowly ravaging him. He is a man at the mercy of the people closest to him, trying to heal him, sometimes with the most violent methods. But what the actor displays through the mastery of his words and body is far beyond description. His words, which ARE law, gradually become incomprehensible, jerky, senseless, inaudible. The straight and dignified body of the absolute monarch bends, strips, is scrutinized from every angle, tortured by incompetent physicians. We cannot but think of Molière’s charlatans, ludicrous with their greed, ignorance and obscurantism. But after the comical first scenes comes the dread of the loss of self . But what Mark Gatiss almost allows us to touch is the King’s sorrow of seeing himself sink, under the eyes of the loved ones, some of them eager and others helpless.
“Touch” is here to be taken literally, as the first rows are only a few centimeters away from the King’s tortured body. It’s intense, blunt, harsh, almost unbearable. And the range of emotions the actor displays still reveals more shades of distress. The King’s grief is still tinged with a certain pride, turning sometimes into revolt. Yet, this revolt is pointless as it’s fighting an invincible force. The King who’s supposed to be in charge bows to a power that overtakes him. From this inversion of power, from this doomed battle, comes the tragic aspect of the play. And finally, what underlies in the screams and contortions of the mad King, is the terror of being deprived of one’s humanity. That’s where we remember Mycroft in Sherlock’s last episode, collapsing in front of another form of madness while he’s supposed to be the almighty “British Government ».
We can’t help but being caught in this new work on the insanity of the so-called absolute power . With the part of George III, Mark Gatiss presents a deeper immersion into tragedy, and here again we’re reminded of Mycroft: in the very end of Sherlock, he becomes a kind of Orestes, haunted by the shadows of his faults and who fails in finding a much desired purification for them.
However, in our opinion, the political aspect is not in the core of the production. Director Adam Penford and his great cast (a touching Queen Charlotte, the Prince of Wales, and so on) obviously chose the intimate issues to tell us about this spiraling into madness, for both the King and his relatives .
Meetings with overwhelmed ministers and hopeless family members in the palace corridor are sorely upsetting. The stage setting enhance these choices with mirrors and walls to both hide and watch. Those intimate issues show as Mark Gatiss, with an exceptional mastery of body language and voice, gradually divests himself from the sparkling clothes of power: peaking when he’s trapped in a straitjacket, giving the spectator anything to see but a body that contorts itself. Intimacy is the last thing remaining in the end when the King finds himself tied to a wheelchair that has replaced the throne. The epitome of power has become screams and pain . Shamelessness, or surrender, who can tell?
Nevertheless, we had some criticism here and there, for example about the link between Dr Willis and the King, which in our opinion takes too much time to set up. And excessive lyricism popped here and there. We’re aware of the language barrier, which undoubtedly prevented us from sensing or understanding details and nuances… Nothing though stopped us from being elated by this surprising mixture of sobriety, sharpness and extravagance, which finally reminds us of Mr Gatiss himself, our own “King of England”.