NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont.—The house lights stay on for much of Kevin Bennett’s production of “The Madness of George III,” Alan Bennett’s manic take on regal instability, which opened May 26 in the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre.
The effect at first is disconcerting -- did the lighting board operator fall asleep? Feels a bit too much like church. But soon enough it comes to seem more natural than the somewhat manipulative, cinematic standard of placing an audience under a shroud of darkness as the action unfolds on a distant stage.
In the Royal George, a compact gem of a theater bathed in warm light, you never feel far from the stage. That’s why it worked so well as a venue for Jackie Maxwell’s similarly audience-conscious production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” two seasons ago, and why it brings an addictive kick to Bennett’s hyperactive production of this modern classic featuring a bravura performance by Shaw and Stratford Festival veteran Tom McCamus.
Except from a few serious scenes, a sense of lighthearted improvisation suffuses the production. As audiences filter into the theater, Tom McCamus roves around the stage in his character’s royal underclothes, waving to people he seems to know in the audience. The stage contains two rows of boxes, where those brave enough to volunteer themselves for audience participation sit.
The story centers on a tumultuous period in the life of George III – the king best remembered for losing the American colonies. Without being heavy-handed, Bennett is showing us the dissolution of an empire through an intensely personal story about a man both losing touch with reality and pushing reality away. As the monarch’s grip on reality slips, so does his country’s grip on the world.
It's a trip to watch the grip slip.
Unlike with the didactic chronicle of an 1837 revolt of Canadian farmers now playing in the Court House Theatre, Bennett’s script privileges personal psychodrama and comedy over facts and figures. The result is a comedy overflowing with wit, which seems designed to keep the audience on its toes as much as the cast.
That cast is ably led by McCamus, whose multi-textured interpretation of George goes far beyond the theatrical flourishes the role seems to demand. He is a ham with the audience, but not overbearingly so. His idiosyncrasies are such that, through the flurry of words, you can discern flickers of his madness before its furious onset and echoes of it after it passes. He inhabits the role as he inhabits his royal vestments: with a supreme sense of belonging. Onto that confidence, he applies a thick layer of natural charm.
McCamus receives tremendous support from a comically inspired cast, featuring Martin Happer as the effete Prince of Wales, Andrew Lawrie channeling Harpo Marx as the put-upon Duke of York and others, and Jim Mezon as the medically inept Dr. Baker.
Costumes by Christopher David Gauthier and a set by Ken MacDonald are as baroque as the Handel musical interludes, a collective display of opulence that almost parodies itself.
Aside from the fascinating machinations of the royal court and of the British parliament, Bennett’s play provides an honest look at mental illness and our reactions to it. Those reactions often reveal more about the hypocrisies of the sane than the afflictions of the mad.
“I’ve always been myself, even when I was ill,” the King says shortly after he is “cured” by a puritanical preacher played with disconcerting sternness by Patrick McManus. “Only now I seem myself. And that’s the important thing: I have remembered how to seem.”
Because of the house lights, the direct addresses to the audience and the general sense of joviality that characterized the evening, the tensions between seeming and being at which Bennett hints becomes almost visceral.
Director Kevin Bennett wrote in his program note that he wanted to create “an event that doesn’t deny the existence of the audience, but embraces us” as a way to remind us that “we are not, in fact, alone.”
Audience participation, a theme of Tim Carroll’s first full season as the Shaw Festival’s artistic director, is tricky business: You better make sure you’ve created something worth participating in. On this count and many more, “The Madness of George III” delivers.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
"The Madness of George III," a comedy by Alan Bennett, runs through Oct. 15 in the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $35 to $117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit shawfest.com.