One way to convey the thrill of seeing the Royal National Theatre's splendid production of Alan Bennett's "The Madness of George III" would be to describe an outstanding scene. But that would also be unfair.
This large-cast production -- currently at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre as part of an American tour -- simply has too many outstanding scenes to choose from.
I could, for instance, focus on the opening scene in which Bennett neatly and cleverly prepares the audience for almost all of what is to come. In this scene, based on an actual event, a mad woman attempts to assassinate the king with a dessert knife.
As George III, Nigel Hawthorne makes his entrance in the stately mode befitting his position, but he immediately demonstrates the king's kindness and sense of humor by brushing off the incident and insisting on humane treatment for his assailant. Not long ago in France, he tells his followers, a would-be assassin "was subjected to the most fiendish torments -- his limbs burned with fire, the flesh lacerated with red-hot pincers. . . . We have at least outgrown such barbarities."
But these are among of the very tortures George III soon experiences himself. Afflicted by what was then diagnosed as madness but is now believed to have been a hereditary metabolic disorder called porphyria, the king is blistered and bled by the court's own opportunistic doctors.
However, the opening scene is no more clever than the scene near the end of the play when we realize the king has recovered his senses. In this long-awaited scene, Bennett ironically represents the return to normalcy by having the king read the lines Shakespeare wrote for a legendary mad monarch, King Lear. Watching Hawthorne play George III, who is in turn playing Lear, is one of the many rich rewards of this production, directed with grandeur and empathy by Nicholas Hytner.
Indeed, Hawthorne's performance alone would make this an event not to be missed.
In the short time before the king's affliction fully overtakes him, the actor shows us the goodness of a man most Americans undoubtedly regard as a villain.
The triumph of his performance is that even when the king is in the deepest throes of his disease -- incontinent, nearly blind and babbling incessantly -- Hawthorne never lets us lose sight of that inner core of goodness and sanity. Just as an actor envelopes himself in a role, so Hawthorne's King George is enveloped in his mysterious illness.
But while we can see the man's true nature struggling to free itself, only one other character recognizes that this spark has not been lost. That's devoted Queen Charlotte, whom George affectionately calls "Mrs. King." With her bird-like appearance and high voice, tinged with an accent suggesting her character's German birth, Selina Cadell seems a bit batty herself. But the actress conveys the queen's love for her husband so affectingly that you share her distress when the scheming crown prince insists his parents be separated as part of his father's "cure."
Nick Sampson's portrayal of the impatient heir apparent as a vain, debauched buffoon is more of a caricature and is one of the production's rare disappointments.
But numerous other luminous performances offset it, including that of William Chubb as Greville, the king's deeply compassionate equerry; Clive Merrison as Dr. Willis, the down-to-earth specialist whose unorthodox handling of the king includes putting him in restraints; and Julian Wadham as chilly, staid Prime Minister William Pitt, a Type-A manager who approaches government with a bookkeeper's eye on the bottom line.
The political jockeying for power that Bennett presents in the field of medicine as well as government lends this 18th century historical drama a startling timelessness. And, even though the theater season is just beginning, it seems safe to predict that "The Madness of George III" will be one of its crown jewels.
After all, it isn't often that Baltimore audiences -- or American audiences for that matter -- are treated to a production this vast, in size as well as quality. And that's not to mention the joy of seeing Nigel Hawthorne's expansive depiction of the title character.
George III's subjects were not allowed to sit in the presence of the king, but it is an honor to sit in the presence of Hawthorne and this stunning company.
"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