Exit the King at the National Theatre review ****

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Exit the King

National Theatre Olivier, 15th August 2018

My first Ionesco play, albeit in a version adapted by ubiquitous wunderkind Patrick Marber, (one day the image of Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan that pops up at the mention of his name will pass), and, all things considered I liked what I saw and heard. I gather Exit the King is the least absurdist of his major works but there is nothing existentially impenetrable about this production. Apparently too this was the National Theatre’s first ever production of this playwright.

Maybe, over its 100 minutes or so running time, its theme, forgive the pun, was done to death. And maybe there was a bit too much “one character at a time”, comic-strip style declamation but overall I was hooked. Rhys Ifans, who I cannot lie, can annoy me, (I wasn’t bowled over by his fool in the Glenda Jackson Old Vic Lear), was perfectly cast as King Berenger; his movement, stature and delivery were expertly marshalled to great effect as the King went through the various stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression) on the way to accepting his death. Indira Varma was imperiously forthright as Queen Marguerite, as you might expect, and Amy Morgan as Queen Marie, the King’s pandering favourite was a fine foil, even if I have to assume she was more Breton than Ile-de -France given the Welsh twang in her Gallic accent. Adrian Scarborough as The Doctor has added another notch to his long list of comedy side-kicks, the under-rated Debra Gillett squeezed a lot of laughs out of the maid/nurse Juliette as did childhood hero Derek Griffiths as the Guard, (I only realised it was him halfway through), with his pithy Brechtian pronouncements on the action.

Patrick Marber once again showed what a clever fellow he is, not just in the way he understands and interprets classic texts, but in the way he makes them relevant and lucid to contemporary audiences, (After Miss Julie, Don Juan in Soho, Three Days in the Country, Travesties). That I guess is what makes him so bankable as a writer/director though I would like to see him conjure up another original play to rival the heights of Dealer’s Choice and Closer. Anthony Ward’s set design is a triumph, showing it is possible to fill the vast Oliver barn with just six characters, and the coup de theatre delivered at the end, with the assistance of High Vanstone’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design, is worth the ticket price alone. No hyperbole here. I literally think it is worth paying £15, for there are plenty of the cheap Travelex tickets left, to see this technical wonder.

King Berenger has reached the grand old age of 483. His kingdom is on its knees but the despotic old boy doesn’t seem to care. He discovers he only has an hour or so to live. There’s nothing the Doc can do. Welcome to the surreal world of French-Romanian playwright Eugene Inonesco. We are in a fairy tale though one that seems to obey Aristotelian real time. KB isn’t happy about the news. His Queens alternatively coax him into denying or accepting this reality. There’s is a deal of metaphysical and psychological insight, some game-playing and a few good one-liners, even if there is no real surprise in the narrative arc. But it does make you think and you do identify with the humanity inside these fabulous characters and there is an energy or, for want of a better term, a life-force, in the play which draws you in, despite the dramatic inertia. As someone who has veered rather too closely towards the guard-rails of mortality in recent years I could see what Ionesco was driving at. He does sound like a bit of a eeyore who spent too long pondering the big questions in life, (and here death), but we need people like that to spare us having to grapple with all this mind-f*cking stuff.

Exit the King is a tragedy played as a comedy and there is, as we know, a lot of fun to be had in that. It isn’t difficult to spot the parallels with the central concern of Lear say, albeit big Will shoves in a few other themes, (and Lear obviously has a fair dose of the absurd), as well as your man Beckett. I have to say though I found this easier to digest than Beckett, though I am no expert. Maybe that reflects the quality of the production but I think I would be keen to see this chap Berenger again, (apparently he crops up in other EO plays Rhinoceros, The Killer and A Stroll in the Air). I suspect that I won’t have too many opportunities to realise this dream, as this is not the sort of theatre to guarantee bums on seats, so I had better crack on with it.

Lurking behind this one-key morality tale Mr Marber does try to draw out a broader message. Just as when we individually die, we die – that’s it folks – and our lives don’t really matter, so it is the same for our species. Homo Sapiens will end with a slow whimper not a bang (technology I’m afraid is the enabler, not the saviour, of our destruction), and there will be no consciousness left to care or mourn. A combination of cynicism and stoicism is the only solution.

Have a nice day.

 

Don Juan in Soho at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

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Don Juan in Soho

Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd May

Get this. The programme says that since a Spanish dramatist, Tirso di Molina, first brought Don Juan to the world in around 1620 he has appeared in at least 1,800 plays, operas, novels, films and poems. And I bet he appeared as a stock character in stories before the printing presses started rolling in earnest (though I am not away that this anti-hero was a feature of Greek or Roman theatre – but they were a cultured bunch right).

So what does this tell us. That people really like and admire him? Or that an overwhelmingly patriarchal artistic community keep shoving this obnoxious prick down our throats (literally), reflecting their own wish-fulfillment fantasies? Search me. I only really know the story from Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera, Don Giovanni (extracts from which unsurprisingly bookended this production). And every time I go into a performance of that, and usually for the first couple of scenes (the rape of Donna Anna for that is what it is, the murder of the Commendatore, and Leporello’s catalogue of conquests on behalf of his master), I think why I am watching this misogynistic clap-trap.

Then Mozart’s music takes over, Don Giovanni does eventually come unstuck and, finally, gets the comeuppance that maybe he deserves. This neatly then absolves us of any approbation we may have had for our anti-hero (and indeed any sneaking admiration some might harbour). All seems resolved except that within minutes of leaving I am once again questioning how I enjoying the tale of a dissolute libertine. I know, I know don’t judge a work of art written hundreds of years ago by today’s moral compass. But what I do often wrestle with is the audience reaction to this character.

Now the play, as interpreted by Moliere, also ups the ante by presenting Don Juan, in some ways, as worthy of our respect because he represents true freedom, the right to live your life as you please. Even more so he exposes the hypocrisy of all around him. This is where Patrick Marber, in this substantial adaptation originally produced in 2006, and which he also directs, pivots his attention with, I have to say, very considerable success. Our anti-hero, now just DJ, is alive and well in contemporary Soho, alongside his put-upon side-kick, Stan.

Now the first thing to say is that David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough end up with the audience in the palm of their hands so adept are their performances. There are times when I get annoyed by David Tennant who just seems to find it all too easy. I was not as bowled over as most by his last major stage work-out in the RSC’s Richard II and some of his TV work grates. And here, at first, I felt he was just too indulgent in his portrayal. But I was wrong and quickly came round. Similarly I felt Adrian Scarborough, at first, wasn’t getting to grips with any of the reasons why Stan would put up with this sort of treatment. Again I was wrong. The power of reflected glory is clearly an overwhelming aphrodisiac for the poor chap.

The same early apprehension I felt about the actors (remember too this is also the point when I am questioning the whole set up anyway) was manifest with Patrick Marber’s text. It just seemed too simplistic at first and inclined to allow the lead actor, ( I gather this was might also have been true of Rhys Ifans in the Donmar Warehouse original production), to lazily tick off the cheap laughs. Well, again  I was wrong as I think this approach means we too are quickly snared by our anti-hero’s charismatic web, which then serves to heighten the subsequent moral dualism. I have noticed this before with Mr Marber’s work. Dealer’s Choice, Closer and The Red Lion all take a bit of time to get going and his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal is similarly unhurried.

So what of the production itself. I am not sure the shoehorning in of Soho, as a symbol for London’s corrupted history, entirely works. It does give us the necessary statue in the form of King Charles II (he was of course the antidote to the cultural scourge of Puritanism). Soho also fuels a short, and not entirely relevant, piece in the programme focussed on the drunken antics of the artistic community in the 1950s and 1960s (Bacon, Thomas, Freud and hangers on). However, I think its symbolic value as the capital’s continuing den of sexual iniquity now looks a bit antiquated in a world of ubiquitous digital pornography. Anna Fleische’s modern setting and costumes, and the interpolation of dance and snatches of contemporary music (how can I not like a play that has masked dancers in white robes whirling around to Taking Heads’s Memories Can’t Wait!), does though set the perfect tone for this pursuit of gratification.

Mr Marber really cranks up the ambiguity in the scene with the beggar, here a Muslim who he forments, but fails, to blaspheme, the duping of Dad to keep the funds flowing and DJ’s climatic monologue, which I gather has been updated for this production. Here the railing against today’s grandiosity, virtue signalling and all-round attention seeking cant and humbug, induced slightly uneasier ripples of laughter through the audience when compared to the undemanding sallies at the expense of one D Trump earlier on. I’d say this is where Mr Marber really hit the mark.

So, overall, I think the writing, direction and performances richly decorate what remains, at its heart, still a very ugly construction. We are amused, we are seduced, we are instructed, we are chided for our complicity. The emptiness of hedonism that lies at the very heart of our DJ, is revealed and, ultimately, this proves his nemesis. Catharsis indeed.