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July 16, 2010

TT: Two kings make a winning hand

I spent the week in San Diego seeing The Madness of George III and King Lear, two of the three shows currently being performed in rotating repertory as part of the Old Globe's 2010 Shakespeare Festival. They make a nifty pair. Here's an excerpt from my Wall Street Journal review.

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6a00d8341c630a53ef0134853908e9970c-300wi.jpgSome plays, including most of the best ones, are all but impossible to film, but a handful of memorable stage shows have been filmed so well as to discourage subsequent revivals. Nicholas Hytner's 1994 film of Alan Bennett's "The Madness of George III" is a case in point, for it was so effective that productions of the play in this country have since been few and far between. That's what lured me to San Diego to see the Old Globe's outdoor version, directed by Adrian Noble as part of the company's 2010 Shakespeare Festival. It appears to be the play's first American staging of any consequence since the National Theater's production (on which Mr. Hytner's film was based) toured the U.S. in 1993. All praise to the Old Globe for mounting it so stylishly--and proving that fine though it was on screen, "The Madness of George III" is even better on stage.

If you haven't seen it in either form, here's a quick refresher course in 18th-century British history: King George III (played at the Old Globe by Miles Anderson) was stricken in 1788 with a mental disorder that left him incapacitated and triggered a political crisis. Seeing a chance to force William Pitt, the Tory prime minister, out of office, Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whig opposition, sought to ram a bill through Parliament authorizing the Prince of Wales to act as Prince Regent and replace Pitt with Fox. It was only when Dr. Francis Willis succeeded against all odds in restoring the king to his senses that the regency was forestalled and the crisis defused.

Out of these grim events, Mr. Bennett has spun a sparkling play whose sober subject is the corrupting effect of power on those who attain it--and, by extension, the corrupting effect of the British class system on those who profit from its privileges....

The Old Globe has fielded a cast of 26 for "The Madness of George III," which is another reason why the play has all but vanished from the stage: Few American companies can now afford to put on so labor-intensive a show. To perform it in rotating repertory with "King Lear," also directed by Mr. Noble, is a feat still further beyond the reach of most regional theater companies, but the Old Globe is bringing it off with seeming effortlessness--and throwing in "The Taming of the Shrew" for good measure! I've seen two other productions "Shrews" in recent weeks, so I passed this one up, but the Old Globe's "Lear" is a splendid piece of work that no one in or near southern California should miss.

What is most surprising about Mr. Noble's "Lear" is his unexpected avoidance of the grand manner. His program note, in which he speaks of presenting the play in a "language-based" style that embraces "the American accent and cadence of speech," gives the clue: This is a text-driven, eloquently plain-spoken "Lear" that strives at all times to be clear and comprehensible, leaving the heavy lifting to Shakespeare instead of trying to do it for him....

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Read the whole thing here.

A scene from The Madness of King George, Nicholas Hytner's 1994 film version of The Madness of George III:

Posted July 16, 2010 12:00 AM

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