Announced well over a year ago, this production was always intended to be a high point in Adam Penford’s first year as artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse, and so it proves.
Mark Gatiss turns out to be a smart casting choice for the title role of Alan Bennett’s 1991 play about the illness that befell George III in the 1780s and its political implications.
Penford’s production brings out the body horror in Bennett’s play and Gatiss captures the king’s bewilderment and agony as he comes to realise he is no longer able to trust his mind, nor his mouth, nor those around him.
Little aphasic hitches in his speech give way to tics and tremors. Doctors flock around him like crows, eager to bleed and blister him, to scrutinise his stools. As his behaviour become more erratic, he’s restrained, legs suppurating and scalp bloody, dignity exiled.
Gatiss’ performance is a very physical one. He makes the most of his height, stalking the stage, splay-toed, as he conveys the king’s rapid decline. He ends up shaven-pated and wrapped in a black, fur-trimmed coat, looking like a broken Count Orlok. But he is also very affecting in his moments of lucidity – “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me” – poignant and vulnerable.
Nottingham Playhouse has gone all in on this production. Robert Jones’ handsome set, consisting of various rotating walls panelled in duck egg blue, is suitably palatial. Ermine. and periwigs abound. Richard Howell’s lighting has a dash of Joseph Wright of Derby about it.
Adrian Scarborough plays the king’s saviour and adversary, Dr Willis, the Lincolnshire physician who restores George’s wits by breaking him as one might a horse. It’s a skilled performance but some of the intricacy of the power play between the two men is lacking.
Among the supporting cast, Nadia Albina is particularly effective as the pragmatic Fitzroy – many of the male roles are played by women – and Debra Gillett makes for a sympathetic Queen Charlotte, his “Mrs King”, affection mingling with sadness in her eyes even as her husband says vile things to her in German.
There’s a dash of Blackadder to Wilf Scolding’s vain, portly Prince of Wales, though that’s partly to do with the way the role is written.
Bennett’s jokes about the colonies and Europe land somewhat differently these days, and the idea that a man in a position of power might not be in full control of his faculties is the stuff of modern nightmares. Penford’s faithful staging is always engaging, if not exactly subtle, but the play very much hinges on the Lear-like lead role – played by Nigel Hawthorne originally and on screen, and by David Haig in the West End in 2012. Gatiss rises to this challenge.