Finding the Essence of 'George III' Nigel Hawthorne creates a dramatic portrait of a misunderstood monarch

October 10, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

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."

Autocratic father

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.

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