The Festival’s in full swing and the ' theatre keeps coming. Andrew Pulver talks to Nigel Hawthorne about Alan Bennett.
Alan Bennett’s latest play The Madness ofGeorge ‘ [I] opened at London’s National Theatre in April of this year and has been playing to packed houses ever since. Nigel Hawthorne, the 63-year-old actor who took on the main role, confesses himself somewhat taken aback by the production’s ' enormous success, though, as the play transfers to ‘ Edinburgh, there seems little cause for apprehension on Hawthorne’s part. The particular; signiﬁcance of the production is that it manages to unite, on a single stage, three different and distinct symbols of Englishness: Bennett, the ; scarf-wearing Beyond The Fringer who yearns still for a donnish life at Oxford; Hawthorne, who immortalised the slippery, plummy-voiced Sir Humphrey in TV’s Yes Minister; and the good old . Royal Family, in the shape of Mad Farmer George i himself. Thus the play represents English intellect, politeness and patriotism combined in a message that is unmistakable.
Bennett has fashioned the story of how George III became rationally challenged into a tragicomedy that insists on being taken seriously, constantly modelling the plight of its central figure on Shakespeare’s mad king, Lear. For Hawthorne, the challenge of the role was immense, and at first, intimidating. ‘Preparing in rehearsal,’ he remembers, ‘was an enormous task. 9 For one thing, when we first read it, it was far too i long to be staged, something like four hours, and it ' had to be cut and re-written. Also it was a bloody big role! I read a lot, as you would, and we went to see the kind of medical implements they would
l l l l
have used on him, like blistering tools. It’s difficult to say whether it really is a great role — you have to wait some time, twenty years maybe, and see things in some kind of perspective before you can think about that kind ofthing.’
But he gladly took on the part, fortified by Bennett’s reputation in the theatre, after 30 years of solid playwriting, including work such as Ralka’s Dick and A Question of A ttribution. as well as screenplays forA Private Function and Prick Up Your Ears. His resurgence comes with the recently televised monologues Talking Heads, which only confirmed his reputation as the Betjeman of the theatre, and the great success of
Wind In The Willows, playing alongside George III
at the National Theatre. Hawthorne is warm in his appreciation of his author: ‘I think the great thing about Alan’s work is that it’s so humane, that it’s so observant of the details of people’s lives. One of his TV plays, from 1982 I think, has Thora Hird
playing a character in mourning. She’s telling the
audience what she’s thinking, and while she is doing that, she is blowing on her tea. It’s little things like that, little things that are so true, that make his plays so wonderful.’
Bennett’s George is very much the victim of circumstance, ignorance, and the then little-known disease, porphyria, so named because it turned urine purple. ‘All I knew of George III,’ continues Hawthorne, ‘was the fact that he lost America and that he talked to trees. I didn’t know anything about this porphyria. Most of what I know about the period actually comes through the architecture. I think in English history we have very strong ideas about some periods like the Elizabethan with Good Queen Bess and all that, then Charles and the Stuarts, and then we skip straight to the Victorians. Nobody pays much attention to the Georges.’
Together, Bennett and Hawthorne have seen to that with a vengeance. A 25'strong cast cleverly re-creates the atmosphere of the period, fleshing out dry political battles and disputes in the medical establishment. King George is seen as a helpless pawn, prey to the factional struggles of the time. ‘The essence of the play, I think, is that here is a man who’s going mad, but can’t do anything to stop it. That’s where the politics of the play come in, where you have all these groups of people who are scrambling desperately to hold on to their positions — whether it’s the politicians associated with either him or the Prince Regent, or the medical people who are looking to make money or increase their status.’
It’s a sign of the times that the National Theatre is the only company around who can undertake this scale of production. ‘I think they were very brave to take it on,’ considers Hawthorne. ‘The whole thing is very big and no West End manager could afford to mount it, especially as the West End is in such a parlous state at the moment. They knew they were taking a risk, but I don’t think anybody expected it to come off quite so well. To take it on tour, which we’ve done three times already, needs sponsorship, as well as a hefty Arts Council grant; we’re planning to take it to America later in the year, and we’ll need sponsorship there again.’
Madness of George 11], King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Mon 7—Sat 12 Sept.
nuanc- Like clockwork
Kubrick’s film version was banned, the Royal Shakespeare Company and 02’s rock opera was panned, and now TAG is about to bring Antony Burgess’s own script for A Clockwork Orange to the
fabric oi the piece,’ says
TAG has commissioned an original, classically-inspired score by Jane MacFarlane, and a constructivist-style set has been designed by Alistair Gray. With a cast of nine, four of whom are dancers, and the bare minimum of props, the violence of the tale is translated into dance. ‘It’s like the
choreographer Andrew Hewitt. ‘In each
specific society or space, when the
play goes into a murder or fight, we
found a movement, a dance quality.’ ‘in the book,’ adds Tony Graham,
By employing the Beethoven symphonies which obsessed Alex, and by hanging Alistair Gray’s flats like paintings in a gallery, the production questions the merit of supposedly uplifting high culture. ‘it’s supposed to be good for you,’ says Graham, ‘but this is, of course, questionable. The image I've been using is of the Nazi who is extremely cultured. He plays Beethoven with his left hand and shoots Jews with his right. The play doesn’t have any answers, if just raises these issues. It’s aimed at the alienated, the
stages of Scotland. That cockney expression for queer has been thoroughly juiced in recent years. However, Tony Graham, director of this production believes there is a whole new generation of Alexes waiting to be
addressed. ‘The fruits of the Thatcher are have ripened,’ he says, ‘and the recession has produced a deeply alienated generation of young people who have no future and this has manifested itself on the streets.’
‘they speak in Nadsak, a fictional jargon. The choreography is to the production what Nadsak was to the book. The language distances you from the horror of it all in orderto get closer.’
disaffected and the ones who can identify with Alex.‘ (Beatrice Colin)
A Clockwork Orange, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 1—Sun 13 Sept and on tour.
The List 28 August — 10 September 1992 81