Ionesco – Exit the King:
Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Exit the King is said to be a modern-day equivalent of the 15th-century morality play, Everyman. It’s remarkably showing for its very first time at the National Theatre on the Olivier stage, in a new adaptation by Patrick Marber.
Patrick Marber’s thought-provoking and at times baffling production takes a look at the exploration of life, its purpose and its bitter end, a prospect for us for us all to explore and for many to fear. Here in the hands of the talented Rhys Ifans, the 400-year-old King Bérenger, a gangly, belligerent figure more akin to an ageing rock star than a monarch, has to contend with his imminent death witnessed by both his first and second wife.
Designer Anthony Ward has created the throne room of a large crumbling palace, its grandeur long gone, set with three thrones and a red carpet. The play begins with an opening scene not dissimilar to something straight out of Blackadder. The audience smile and giggle with the slapstick style entrance of the guard (Derek Griffiths), the doctor (Adrian Scarborough), the maid Juliette (Debra Gillet)) and King Bérenger’s wives Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma) and Queen Marie (Amy Morgan) as they all give a solo introduction to their characters role and relationship to the King before the man himself makes his grand entrance, and from this moment on it very much becomes a one-man show.
The news is broken to the King that he is dying and that he will indeed be dead by the end of the play. We witness the unfolding of his character as he goes through the stages of shock and denial, pain, guilt, anger, depression, reconstruction and finally acceptance whilst being guided and goaded by his wives. There are some strong performances all round, I loved Debra Gillet’s comic old maid and Indira Varma’s portrayal of jealousy and loss of youth was poignant, however, it is hard to shine when up against the charismatic performer and great master Rhys Ifans.
It’s also hard to watch an hour and half of a dying man’s demise, as he plunges into sentimentality, particularly without an emotional investment or care for the character involved. At the end of the play, as you watch him walk along the red carpet to leave the world behind, you are left rather relieved it’s all over and wondering what Exit the King was really trying to convey.
Maybe Exit the King was a metaphor for the power that mankind has to create a world of wonder, but one that the ego of mankind can so easily destroy. Perhaps it’s a reminder to us all that we can choose to do good but if we do, it needs to be a selfless act and not one that is all about our own gain. Or maybe it’s yet another debate on greed and avarice, divine wonder, the power of entitlement and wealth and the human ability to justify it all, or maybe it’s just a pantomime about the meaning of life. But whatever it meant for the audience, I for one was left wondering if this production had somehow rather missed the mark.
Exit the King
Upper Ground, Lambeth,
London SE1 9PX
17 July 2018 to 6 October 2018.