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.