By Alan Bennett
Directed by Philip Franks
Company: Theatre Royal, Bath
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Tuesday 15th November 2011
This was a fabulous production with an excellent central performance and strong support throughout. I hadn’t seen the original production at the National so I have nothing to compare it with, but I suspect this production would have stood up against it very well.
The set was very sparse, although that was due to the nature of Chichester’s main stage. A black wall with gaps all along the back, and a square of beige flooring in the middle of the stage – that was it! We gathered from the post-show discussion that in the proscenium arch settings, there are lots of backdrops which are used to separate the rooms; with this open set, they had to work a bit harder to get the locations across, and our response was that they’d done that very well. There were lots of chairs and a desk or two which were brought on and taken off, and the costumes were lovely as well, but otherwise it was just acting, and lots of it.
The story is pretty well known now, and although the stage play is necessarily different from the film, they cover the same ground. We weren’t shown the contents of the King’s chamber pots (mercifully!), but we did have to sit through some of the tortures inflicted on him in the name of ‘healing’ – blistering, purging, and that horrible chair. Thank God for modern medicine.
David Haig’s performance as King George was superb. He was likeable as the relatively sane monarch, with his little idiosyncrasies and his concern for his people, but as the ‘madman’ it was very difficult to watch him at times, especially with such little understanding on the part of those around the king. With the king’s suffering so clear, he brought a huge amount of compassion out in me, which is no bad thing. He told us in the post-show that he’d started learning his lines months before rehearsals began, as it was the only way he could get all that dialogue into his memory in time. His delivery was fantastic – even the gobbledygook was understandable, if you see what I mean.
The queen was magnificently regal, while the Prince of Wales (are we allowed to hiss and boo?) was wonderfully self-centred and petulant, with a face you just wanted to slap (no offence to the actor). Mr Pitt was sober and careful, the Lord Chancellor sly and politically adroit, and Fox, Sheridan and the Prince’s other cronies creepily reminiscent of recent political events. The doctors were marvellously unconcerned about the efficacy of their treatments with the exception of Willis, who although he showed the most concern for the King as a human being, was equally ineffective with his treatments and received a deserved cold shoulder by the end. At least he wasn’t torturing his Lincolnshire patients to make them better. The servants also did a good job, although their parts were less well defined, and the whole cast did a fine job of adapting to the wide open spaces of Chichester. There was plenty of agony along the way, but plenty of humour to lighten the load as well – a good mix.
From the post show we learned that this was the final week of their tour, before the production goes into London in January. The audience who stayed behind were very appreciative of their hard work, and David Haig in particular was very complimentary about the Festival Theatre as a performance space, with the audience wrapped around the stage. Apparently Alan Bennett doesn’t go to revivals of his plays as he always sees things he wants to rewrite, so he prefers to concentrate on whatever play he’s currently developing. He sends his brother Gordon to see the revivals instead!
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me