Looking every bit the prim, urbane civil servant he portrayed throughout most of the 1980s on British television, actor Nigel Hawthorne is discussing national health plans. "You're desperately trying to find a national health program here, and we're in the throes of a disintegrating one," he remarks wryly.
Dressed in crisp gray flannels, a navy blazer, striped shirt and what the British call a "spotted" tie, Hawthorne made this observation at a recent Baltimore press conference. However, his interest in health plans stems not from any particular personal or political experience, but from the experience of the 18th-century British monarch King George III, whom he portrays in Alan Bennett's "The Madness of George III."
Hawthorne's critically acclaimed performance in the Royal National Theatre's production won him the 1992 Olivier Award (the British equivalent of the Tony). He will repeat that performance in the company of 22 other National Theatre actors when the play comes to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Tuesday for a three-week engagement -- the longest in its limited two-month American tour.
Set in 1788, Bennett's play focuses on the king's first severe attack of what was believed to have been insanity. However, modern medical research has suggested that his illness may have been caused by a physical condition, possibly porphyria, a hereditary metabolic imbalance whose symptoms include purple urine and whose name comes from the Greek word for "purple."
The play, Hawthorne says, "is about a man who knows that he is ill and not insane, being treated for insanity, and that's the tragedy." None of the king's doctors wanted to be accused of allowing him to get worse, but each hoped to claim credit for his recovery. And so, the 64-year-old actor adds with an impish grin, "[The play] is a satire on doctors, on the ambition of doctors."
This is a theme that does have strong, personal resonance for the actor. "My father was a doctor," he explained at the press conference. "I've never been very warm towards doctors."
But in a subsequent, more in-depth interview, Hawthorne admitted he always looks for elements of his father in the characters he plays.
"The things I remember my father for [are] his rather autocratic manner, his bullying tactics," he says, enumerating similarities to King George. "And, I knew him when he was very ill, too, and he was incontinent and had several strokes, and the shock of seeing my father in this condition has never left me."
A British native, Hawthorne was raised in Cape Town, South Africa, where his family moved in the early 1930s. Although his father wanted him to enter the medical profession, by the time Hawthorne was a university student, he knew he wanted to be an actor. It was a career choice his father considered "very much a trivial pastime and not to be encouraged," he recalls.
Hawthorne's parents died before he achieved major success, which didn't come until he was middle-aged. But they did get to see him on stage. Their reaction, the actor says, was "slightly bemused, slightly bewildered."
The actor has a couple of theories on why success was so long in coming. When he arrived in England in 1951, he says, "People couldn't really work out who I was or what I was -- a stranger with a spotty sunburn." Most of all, however, he believes that his eventual fame was due not so much to long-overlooked talents as to a change in himself.
"I started to admit vulnerabilities and things that I was trying to hide before," he says. "Shyness, anxiety, guilt and all those things that I have in me are now quite freely shown."
His first widespread success came in the comic character role of a civil servant named Sir Humphrey Appleby in the BBC series, "Yes, Minister," and its sequel, "Yes, Prime Minister." The show achieved international popularity, but any danger of being typecast was eliminated by Hawthorne's subsequent serious-minded stage roles, beginning with his deeply emotional portrayal of writer and theologian C. S. Lewis in "Shadowlands," which won him the 1991 Tony Award.
Indeed, Hawthorne believes the role was a turning point. "If I hadn't done 'Shadowlands,' which was a sort of emotional release for me as a person as well as an actor, it might have been less easy to have done 'George III,' " he says.
There is a more direct link between these two roles, as well. Near the end of the Broadway run of "Shadowlands," Nicholas Hytner, the director of "The Madness of George III," was in New York directing the musical "Miss Saigon." He came to see Hawthorne's performance one night and then met him for dinner.
The director's reaction seemed low-key, but when Hawthorne returned to England, Hytner offered him "George III." "I realized .. he'd liked it more than he'd let on," Hawthorne says.
To prepare for King George, Hawthorne read the king's medical records, which are available in book form. "They make very grim reading," he says. "I think what the man went through is quite horrendous. The extraordinary thing is that not only did he survive until he was in his 80s, but the monarchy survived when Europe was tumbling, despite having ostensibly a madman on the throne."
Portraying the king's difficulties has proved the most physically demanding task of his career. Those demands are even more strenuous on the current tour since he is appearing in eight performances a week, as opposed to the usual four or five when the play is in repertory at the National Theatre.
To maintain his health and stamina, Hawthorne has adopted a regimen similar to the one he followed when "Shadowlands" was Broadway. "In my mornings I can do what I like -- go to art galleries, museums and things, go to lunch with people," he says. But in the afternoons, he always makes time for a nap.
His interest in art is long-standing. One of his first jobs was drawing caricatures for the Johannesburg Star. "One of the things that made me give it up is that I have a facility of getting very good likenesses, and people don't like to be shown what they are," he says.
It was useful training, however. Like a caricaturist, he explains, an actor portraying a real-life character must "find the essence of the man." In drawing caricatures, he continues, "you have to dig quite deep. You have to find what it is about that person that makes him identifiable, and it's usually nothing to do with the features at all. It's the inside of the person." Similarly, on stage, "you find the drive, the energy of the man, the compassion of the man, the honesty of the man -- those sorts of things I go for rather than the physical details."
This approach is especially handy since, as Hawthorne is quick to point out, he bears little physical resemblance to George III. "The King is normally seen from portraits to be very blubbery-lipped and he had a sort of beaky nose. He had very large blue eyes with no eyelashes or very pale eyelashes, almost white eyebrows. He was very fleshy . . . not very attractive -- which I think I am," he kidded at the press conference.
Hawthorne, who still enjoys drawing and painting, found time to take art classes during the New York run of "Shadowlands." It's a luxury he can't afford this time around, with only two weeks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before coming to Baltimore.
In Baltimore in 1974
The actor has performed in Baltimore just once before -- in 1974 when he appeared at the Mechanic as Touchstone in the National Theatre's all-male production of "As You Like It."
A devotee of black gospel music, he recalled seeing a sign advertising a gospel concert. He enthusiastically convinced about 10 company members to attend the concert with him, only to find less than two dozen other people in the audience. "Then the curtains opened and the [singers] were white," he says with a chuckle. "I was so disappointed."
Besides trying to track down some genuine black gospel music while he's here, Hawthorne will probably spend at least one of his free Mondays visiting patients at Philadelphia's Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, an organization that helps brain-injured children. His involvement with the Institutes began about six years ago, when a British family he knew had a child in the program. Since then he has formed an organization called Philadelphia Kids that raises funds to help British families come here for treatment.
Although Hawthorne hasn't made many movies, his latest opened Friday -- Warner Bros.' futuristic action picture, "Demolition Man," which stars Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes. In a considerable departure from George III, C. S. Lewis or even Sir Humphrey Appleby, Hawthorne plays the head of a penitentiary, a character he describes as "a sort of bad villain, a very evil sort."
After Baltimore, "The Madness of George III" has a two-week engagement in Boston; then the company returns to Britain where the production will go back into the National Theatre repertory until February. After that, it will tour Athens and Salonika in Greece as well as Jerusalem.
In the meantime, Hawthorne seems to be relishing the opportunity to introduce Britain's former subjects to the monarch credited with -- or, depending on your allegiance, blamed for -- their independence. "It's lovely," the actor says with typical British understatement, "to bring the king to the Colonies which he never visited."
What: "The Madness of George III"
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Oct. 31
Call: (410) 625-1400
Opening night gala: Tuesday night's performance is a gala to benefit the Baltimore City Life Museums and the Royal National Theatre. Tickets are $150 and include cocktails and dinner, orchestra or dress circle seating and a dessert reception with cast and guest Lady Soames, the daughter of Winston Churchill. For gala information, call (410) 396-3524.