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5 March 2012

David Haig as King George and Clive Francis as Dr Francis Willis in 'The Madness of George III'

Deborah Caulfield saw 'The Madness of George III' written by Alan Bennett, which is being re-run at The Apollo, London, until 31 March. She was greatly amused!

In his autobiography Alan Bennett, the author of The Madness of George III, said: ‘Every family has a secret and the secret is that it is not like other families.’ (Telling Tales, BBC Books, 2000)

When King George III became ill in the autumn of 1788, his doting wife Queen Charlotte (Beatie Edney) fell into despair, while their supercilious younger son George (the brilliant Christopher Keegan) saw his dad’s illness as a well-timed career development opportunity.

In the 18th century, the monarch’s health was everyone’s business. Consternation reigned in response to daily bulletins reporting the King’s worrying, and worsening, condition.

Parliament was in disarray. War with France was on the horizon and the ailing King was failing in his royal duties, including, and especially, the signing of warrants for expenditure.

The overriding question was: 'Is the King mad?' Uncertainty was bad for business; the matter had to be resolved. If the King was mad, he would not be fit to be sovereign and his son George must substitute - which would have suited the opposition.

Enter the doctors. All were completely baffled by the King’s symptoms, which included incontinence, painful muscular weakness, and hypersensitive skin. "You couldn’t cure a gammon ham!" cried George.

To be fair, science and etiquette were not exactly on the side of the medics. The stethoscope had yet to be invented, and it was forbidden for doctors to ask the monarch direct questions, or to physically examine him. They had to rely on observation and information volunteered by the patient, or others.

This storyline contains all the ingredients of a tragedy. Yet 'The Madness of George III' is an extremely funny play. It would be, because Alan Bennett is one the UK’s wittiest living writers. There were a good many rolling-in-the-aisle moments.

King George, exuberantly and superbly played by David Hague, has most of the best lines. For example: "I am not going out of my mind; my mind is going out of me."

I greatly enjoyed Nicholas Rowe as Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger). He was the essence of suave and cool, in contrast to the uncouthness and fervour of poor old George. Pitt had a country to run and no time for any madness nonsense.

Three centuries on, George’s illness is believed to have been porphyria, a metabolic disorder. However, delusions, racing thoughts and rapid-fire speech suggest he was also bipolar.

The ‘treatment’ was administered by one Dr Willis, an-ex priest who ran a psychotherapeutic farm in Lincolnshire, where "fresh air and hard work worked wonders", he claimed.

Willis’s brand of talking-therapy focussed on the need to "break the spirit" of the patient, in order for him to regain control of his faculties. This involved strapping him to a commode and tying him up in a straight jacket. "If you will not behave, you must be restrained!"

Cue flash mob rendition of Handel’s Zadok the Priest by members of the cast (all except George). Inspired!

That Dr Willis cured the King is open to doubt. The disappearance of symptoms indicates remission. Indeed, the King experienced recurring bouts of the same illness throughout his life.

Recovery was, of course, a good thing. But I rather missed the uninhibited, old George. For when the suffering and the antics ceased, and his health returned, the man reverted to arrogance and pomposity, dismissing loyal and caring staff for no reason.

Yes, the King was back. He was himself again. ‘What-what!’

The Madness of King George by Allan Bennet runs at the Apollo Theatre, London until 31 March.

Please click on this link to go to the Apollo Theatre website.

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