Exit the King at the National Theatre: ersatz stateliness, strong performances and pure absurdity
Written as a tonic to help original writer Eugène Ionesco cope with the threat of what he thought was imminent death, Exit the King depicts a king desperately trying to hang on. Anthony Walker-Cook reviews.
As you walk into the Olivier Theatre to watch Exit the King, originally by Eugène Ionesco but here a new version by Patrick Marber, it’s difficult not to be taken aback by the tall wall facing the audience. On which the painted bird with spread wings is an imposing spectacle. Yet one thing holds back its grandeur: a big white sheet covering the majority of the image. Combine this with the three thrones covered also by large pieces of fabric, sounds that make the entire set feel hollow and a hunched over cleaner on stage and before Exit the King has even begun you get a sense of the ersatz stateliness that characterises this absurd play.
It’s almost ironic that Ian McKellen is starring in King Lear at the Duke of York Theatre as Exit the King opens at the National: the latter feels like Lear’s time in the storm, and one character defines the place as a ‘proto-dystopia’ with an ill king. Written as an attempt to ‘learn how to die’ when dramatist Eugène Ionesco thought his liver disease would be his final illness, Exit the King meditates on King Bérenger’s (Rhys Ifans) death and traces the five stages before his passing as diagnosed by the Doctor (Adrian Scarborough).
It is, however, a diminished court: all that remain are Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma) and Queen Marie (Amy Morgan), respectively stoic and coy, and the Guard (Derek Griffiths) and Juliette (Debra Gillett), who functions as a cleaner, cook, nurse and maid. Anthony Ward’s design perfectly captures the mixed tone of the set: Varma is dominant and beautiful in a black gown where Ifans’ long robe reveals blue pyjamas underneath. Certainly, just looking at him should reveal this is not a king of stable mind or health.
As Bérenger, Ifans’ performance is captivating and dislocating. ‘Why was I born if not forever?’ he asks. Physically weak with the delusion of power, Ifans constantly keeps death at bay by stumbling around the set. His kingdom is in ruins, his court a veritable collection of the confused and there are few opportunities to claim it back from the despots that have taken his land away from him. The worst bit about the situation? 1,000 bistros have had to be abandoned. Certainly, connections may be made to current politicians of the world who also seem unable to face the truths of inability (and the inevitable). But where our sympathy is elicited in plays about falling (and fallen) kings, a tradition from the origins of drama itself, Exit the King fails to ever make us feel for Bérenger. This is no fault of Ifans’, but instead the consequence of the pure ludicrousness of the script.
All actors put in a strong performance throughout this production – Varma is evidently frustrated at her king, Morgan’s childishness is endearing and Scarborough’s inefficiency is comic – but they are all pushing against writing that never goes beyond being absurd. Under Patrick Marber’s direction, Exit the King is full of moments of humour that tie neatly into the ethos of the show. These are never enough, however, to call the production a comedy since it constantly feels as if there is a more tragic element meant elicit our sympathy for Ifans. Surrounded by such a court of motley, comic figures, this pathos is never forthcoming, a quip deflating our pathos for the king.
Whereas King Lear goes into the storm after audiences have seen him cast out and betrayed by his daughters, the storm has already begun for Bérenger in Exit the King. Sadly, despite a majestic set and noble performances, there are no cures for such singularly absurd writing.
Exit the King is in rep at the National Theatre until the 6th October, 2018.
Feature photograph: Siman Annand