by Hedy Weiss
April 21, 2011
Let the wild hoopla surrounding a certain royal wedding on the other side of the pond rage on at a distance. Anything and everything you might ever want to know about life in that hothouse realm of kings and queens and heirs to the throne—as well as the ministers, physicians, mistresses, patronage-seekers, underminers, and devoted servants who attend them—can now be found at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
That is where The Madness of King George III, Alan Bennett’s impossibly smart, shrewd, poignant, funny, bristlingly alive 1991 drama about the man who “lost the colonies” is now receiving a transcendent, impeccably cast production under the direction of Penny Metropulos. And it is where Harry Groener (a Tony Award-winning actor with major musical credits, who also is widely known as the Mayor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), is giving one of those towering performances that suggests a lifetime of work has coalesced into a single grand portrayal—one that reveals years of accrued technique and profound life experience. Groener should not be missed. More crucially, he deserves to lead this production to Broadway.
From the moment the actor arrives onstage amid a chaotic public gathering, and is attacked by a madwoman he treats with revealing compassion, he is in command of the stage. And he never loses that towering presence, even when, not long afterward, he himself falls into a prolonged period of physical and mental illness. As he will later explain, even in the worst moments of that illness, when he was subjected to all the barbaric tortures of 18th century medicine, he never truly lost himself; he simply lost the ability to “seem” like himself to those around him. And it is the “seeming”—the appearance of normality—that is so crucial in life.
Set in the period between the American Revolution and French Revolution, Bennett’s play not only captures that historical period with verve, but cleverly suggests the period in which it was written (when the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana was in breakdown mode). And in its sharp banter about the role of government, the tension between state spending and the need for frugality, the compromises required for coalition-building, the importance of continuity, the precariousness of Empire, the chicanery of the medical profession and, above all, the power of individual character, it could not be more modern. This is no costume drama; it is a living, breathing, vibrant commentary on human relationships and social interplay. And of course Bennett being the peerless writer he is (he also is the author of “The History Boys”), we get plenty of comic relief , and commentary, by way of chamber pots and their contents.
When King George suddenly descends into what appears to be both madness and physical decay, the powers that be go into defensive mode. His condition is hidden as much as possible, though backroom politics are at work. A variety of self-serving doctors (played with great flair by Bradley Armacost, Patrick Clear, William Dick and James Newcomb) introduce their drastic remedies. Alliances begin to shift. The King is denied access to his German-born wife, Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones), with whom he has had more than a dozen children. And his oldest son, the plump, decadent, style-obsessed Prince of Wales (an ideal Richard Baird), is more than happy to reach for the crown, with his swishy younger brother, the Duke of York (Alex Weisman) at his side.
Meanwhile, William Pitt (the superb Nathan Hosner), the young, upright Prime Minister whose own father suffered from mental illness, stands by the King’s side, while others, like Lord Chancellor Edward Thurlow (the excellent David Lively), check how the wind is blowing. The King’s mistress, Lady Pembroke (lovely work by Patrice Egleston), is the model of discretion, as are the King’s devoted attendants, played by Kevin Gudahl, Kevin Cox, and, most notably, by Erik Hellman, whose beautiful acting throughout climxes with his superb delivery of the play’s quietly devastating epilogue.
As for King George (who learly feels an affinity with King Lear), he recovers enough to suggest the family might try to appear more normal—or at least present a more pleasing veneer of dysfunction.
Bravo, “King George.”
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