Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Theatre review: Exit the King

"He thinks he's the first person ever to die."
"Everyone is the first person ever to die."

That’s the exchange at the heart of Exit the King, and the real gut-punch in what is, somehow, the first time the National Theatre has ever staged a play by Eugène Ionesco. King Bérenger (Rhys Ifans) can command the sun to rise and set, win global wars with the force of his will alone, kill anyone who displeases him simply by ordering that their head fall off, and though technically mortal will only die when he chooses. Except suddenly none of this works. Bérenger deciding his own time of death was dependant on him choosing something within an average human lifespan, and at 483 years old the choice has been taken out of his hands. After a three-day illness his nation has shrunk, the army is down to one Guard (Derek Griffiths) who can’t even hear, let alone obey the king’s orders any more, a huge crack has appeared in the palace wall and Mercury has collided with Saturn – but only in the skies above Bérenger’s kingdom. Outside its borders, everything goes on as usual.

The court Doctor (Adrian Scarborough,) who also serves as astronomer and executioner, has divined what all these omens mean: Bérenger is about to die, and they can even predict the exact time – he’ll die at the end of the play.

He’ll be taking the whole kingdom with him; Exit the King’s central theme might not be an original one or a particularly complex one, but it’s a powerful one: Everyone is the centre of their own universe, so their death is the end of the world. Ionesco, who thought he was dying himself when he wrote this, was concerned with the idea of preparing for death, and that is what the characters are helping or hindering the king with. His first wife, Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma,) brusquely and rather impatiently tries to get him to accept his coming fate while second wife Queen Marie (Amy Morgan) is in a state of panicked denial. In the 68 minutes remaining to him from when he’s informed what’s happening, the Doctor needs the king to quickly go through five stages of grief and reach acceptance.

Especially in the first half of the play, adapter-director Patrick Marber focuses for the most part on the comic side of Ionesco’s absurdist tragicomedy, with Debra Gillett’s dusty lady-in-waiting Juliette, later having to serve as nurse as well, stealing the show as she’s lumbered with clearing up a mess that’s beyond fixing. But overall for me the comedy was the weaker element of the evening, the sadness and inevitability as Bérenger goes far from quietly into the night making this quickly become a devastating, moving show for me.

Spectacle isn’t the only way to make full use of the Olivier’s resources, and Anthony Ward’s crumbling fairytale design almost seems to flicker gradually out of existence before gently, regally disappearing as Bérenger, and his entire world, accept their fate. Apparently Marber got the idea of casting Ifans after seeing him play the Fool to Glenda Jackson’s King Lear, and his Bérenger is indeed a grotesque cross between the Fool and Lear himself (with a distinct touch of Prince Philip to the voice.) It’s an impressive performance but Varma is right up there with him, as the spiky Marguerite proves perhaps the kindest figure in the play, determined to get her husband the good death the story’s been hoping for, however stubbornly he resists it.

As ever, the writer directing his own work runs the risk of leaving things a bit bloated, and there’s times when Marber’s version of Exit the King dwells on a couple of ideas and could have done with a trim. But from very early on into the show I was emotionally involved, if not in the fact that the childish, mean-spirited Bérenger himself was going to die, in the fact that he was going to take his whole surreal universe with him. It’s perhaps this knowledge, rather than the way the action itself plays out, that dominates the play, and Marber and Ward have come up with a suitably epic, hauntingly unforgettable way to bring it about when the time finally comes.

Exit the King by Eugène Ionesco in a version by Patrick Marber is booking in repertory until the 6th of October at the National Theatre’s Olivier.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Simon Annand.

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