David Haig is stunning as the apparently mad George III, now playing at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre, Guildford

How have I got this far in life without seeing The Madness of George III on stage? I always intended to swot up a bit on my history before actually seeing it, knowing it would make the play more enjoyable. So, when the press evening loomed at the Yvonne Arnaud this week, I cunningly invited a history boff as my guest who happily filled me in on ‘the 1700s and all that’ before we got there. A good move indeed.

 

But even without detailed knowledge of the loss of American colonies, the Prince of Wales and William Pitt the Younger, this production will still blow you away. The acting, the sets, the music are all stunning. But, most importantly perhaps, the acting. I was slightly concerned as to how poor George apparently going mad might be played; with consideration I hoped rather than uncontrolled frenzy.

And I was far from disappointed - David Haig plays the part of the agonized king with incredible energy and passion, twisting and turning as his body burns with fever and convulsion. With a lesser actor, this could have been almost comic as the physical itching and scratching is relentless, but hats off to Haig - he is utterly believable and his performance is incredibly moving.

In the early scenes, Haig we see the King as confident and decent and enjoying life with his beloved wife Charlotte. Here Haig delivers his lines with panache, amusing the audience with his cheery ‘What, What!’ at the end of many sentences. But when the King’s mind deteriorates due to the onset of the illness Porphyria, Haig somehow summons an incredible stream of ramblings, outbursts and accusations with incredible clarity. He says with tortured frustration, "I am chasing words, they run before me and I am unable to catch them." He is aware of his predicament, but cannot control it - to the physician he say, “I am here, but I am not all there” “ I am not out of my mind, my mind is out of me”.

 

His mental decline and angst is akin to King Lear, and in Act II we see him in a calmer moment of recovery, touchingly reading an extract of Lear with his friend and valet.

This is a play so full of great lines that at times you want to press the pause button, rewind and catch them again. A great achievement by Alan Bennett who once considered becoming a history don.

Haig is supported by a wonderful cast - indeed, a rich cast of characterisations with moments of humour peppered amongst the more tragic scenes. Christopher Keegan is splendid as the Prince of Wales and it’s hard not to laugh at the group of physicians with their ridiculous theories.

This production, directed by Christopher Luscombe who worked with Bennett on the brilliant History Boys, is a wonderful balance of light and shade with bursts of humour and blasts of great music relieving the King's agonsing decline.

But above all, this is a very moving story of a man at his wit’s end trying to understand and cope with the physical and mental changes in his helpless body. Five days later the image of his struggle is still with me. 

The Madness of George III is at the Yvonne Arnaud until Saturday November 5th. Box office 01483 440000.