The Madness of King George III

Today is Talk Like Shakespeare Day, an international celebration of William Shakespeare on his 447th birthday. But whether you are interested in speaking in iambic pentameter, spewing quotes from his 37 plays, or reciting one of his 154 sonnets, you can still find a way to express your inner thespian.

As Hamlet once noted, “The play’s the thing.” And The Madness of George III, which opened Wednesday night at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, is a not-to-be-missed play. The run of the play dovetails nicely with the real life upcoming nuptials of Prince William, the grandson of the current monarch. But there is little point in getting up at 5 a.m. (CDT) on April 29 for the BBC’s broadcast of William and Kate’s trip to Westminister Abbey—after all, that wedding is more of a royal public relations event than anything else. For the real backstory on the British monarchy and all the plotting and politics that accompany it, the George III production is hard to beat.

Written by playwright Alan Bennett  (he also wrote Tony-award-winning The History Boys), the play examines a time in King George’s reign after the American Revolution and before the French one. (Note: this script has been slightly rewritten by Bennett from his 1991 original play, which was known as The Madness of King George, and from the screenplay adaptation Bennett did for the 1994 movie of the same name.)

Today George III is often regarded as the Rodney Dangerfield of kings: he gets no respect. But portrayed by Harry Groener, a veteran Shakespearean actor who also played the evil Mayor Williams on the cable TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this George seems a human if overwhelmed leader who descends into what is taken for madness. Only hundreds of years later will medical science suspect that George wasn’t crazy so much as suffering from porphyria, a genetic disease. Yet the relentless emphasis on image over reality (“Can you try to act more normal?” one character asks another) feels very modern.

A poignant scene in George III involves the King, exiled with a small group of attendants, acting out a scene from Shakepeare’s King Lear. A king who is assumed mad reading aloud a classic play about a king who loses his mind—“Good stuff, what?” as George III says.  Yes, good stuff. And today is a day to celebrate it.


Photo: Liz Lauren