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The Madness of King George III - a review

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

On Saturday 17 November a few members of our Recovery College blog group were lucky enough to attend a performance of the latest play at the Nottingham Playhouse – The Madness of George III. Starring Mark Gatiss - from the BBC’s Sherlock and Doctor Who - as King George, we were keen to see how the play showed the treatment of mental illness in the time of the Regency Crisis of 1788-89 and how upon reflection we can consider the historical experience today.

We felt that the entire performance was an intense experience, especially for those on their recovery journey. However the relationship between the King and his Queen was very loving and domestic and was a great example of how strong relationships are so important when you are in crisis.

“I’ve always been myself, even when I was ill. Only now I seem myself. And that’s the important thing.”

As the King becomes more unwell there were moments in the play where we as a group were looking at one another to check in with how we felt. By the interval, we were buzzing with our emotional responses to the performances. Nottingham Playhouse did a great job with noting that there would be scenes in the play that some audience members may find distressing, but we felt that we knew what we were getting into and we talked it through as a group. One of the most alarming aspects of the play is that the doctors at the time were unable to diagnose the King so was he subjected to numerous medical treatments. After the play, Adam Penford (Artistic Director at Nottingham Playhouse) was part of a panel to discuss the attitudes to mental health both at that time in history and today in his staging of the play. He discussed how the issue of mental health was something that they wanted to take seriously in the course of the production. Alan Bennett wrote the play in the early 1990s. At that time – 27 years ago- it was thought that King George III suffered from porphyria, but it is now thought that he had bipolar disorder. The decision was taken at an early stage to not portray George III as having a particular mental illness as it is impossible to accurately diagnose someone through historical accounts. This leaves the audience in the same position as the doctors and other characters in the play none of whom knew what was the matter with the King. We thought this was particularly powerful especially for those who have little experience of mental illness. Even today it can take time to work out a mental health diagnosis although we are extremely fortunate to not have to experience the treatments of the period. We all felt Gatiss’ performance was very powerful and intense.

At the panel following the play one of the Peer Mentors from Turning Point, someone who has lived experience of mental ill health pointed out that Gatiss’ portrayal of King George presented a loss of dignity, fear and anguish still common to those suffering from mental health problems today. We all agreed with this response but felt the experience of watching the play was worth the anxiety we felt as a reaction to the performances. Attending the theatre also gave us the opportunity to speak about these issues that even with having lived experience of mental health problems we sometimes avoid. During the panel discussion, Adam Penford stated that meaningful engagement in the arts was important and his responsibility as Artistic Director was to thematically tackle problems pertinent to society. The Playhouse aims to involve many different groups within the community (youth groups, older people…) in order to create a transformative culture. We all left the Playhouse saying that we need to visit the theatre more often and we all had a great afternoon out.

The Madness of George III is at Nottingham Playhouse until 24 November 2018.

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