West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 24 September, 2003

These laughs aren't loud guffaws, but rather the rueful rumbles of an "Oh, ain't that the truth!" kind of response. They follow three lines in particular: the observation "Office [in government] makes Tories of us all", the Prime Minister's lament "But I needed five more years..." and a functionary's instruction to an expert to rewrite a report for Parliament in language more conducive to the government's agenda. Such audience responses show a heartfelt and I think significantly rooted state of mind towards various current political issues. All the more surprising, then, that the play which elicits them is not some satire keen and critical, but Alan Bennett's The Madness Of George III, and the Prime Minister in question not Blair but Pitt the younger. Rachel Kavanaugh's West Yorkshire Playhouse revival has caught the mood of the time more keenly than anyone may have expected.

As a director, Kavanaugh has accrued a reputation in recent years for her clever twentieth-century relocations of Shakespeare comedies. The combination here is rather the opposite: Bennett's play is only a dozen years old, but demands that it be dressed in the period over two centuries ago in which it is set. This may, I think wrong-foot Kavanaugh slightly, as she ratchets up the performance style to match the clothes. This does not handicap the production as such (although the portrayal of the Prince Regent and the Duke of York as no more and no less than a pair of empty-headed, powdered popinjays comes close on occasion), but I did keep re-playing lines in my head with a rather more Bennettesque deadpan than they were given on stage.

In the central role, though, Michael Pennington pitches his performance with precision. When the recovering king is permitted to read some Shakespeare, and his doctor innocently picks King Lear, George's remarks about the play's trenchancy are keener still because in previous scenes we have witnessed Pennington's king coming so close to that other monarch's mania. As the authoritarian ex-priest whose repressive regimen may or may not have been responsible for the king's cure, Ken Drury's lowering presence recalls the late Philip Stone in a slew of Stanley Kubrick films. A solid supporting company is especially noteworthy around the Ks: venerable Timothy Kightley, reliable David Killick, underrated Paul Kemp. Kavanaugh's production goes for entertainment rather than revelation, and by happy chance finds added topicality along the way.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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