Despite his prominence in European theatre and beyond, Ionesco is less well known in the UK. Patrick Marber’s new version of Exit the King is the first play by Eugène Ionesco to be performed at the National Theatre, and it’s done with flair, verve and a patchwork of references. Ionesco’s absurdist works are often grouped together with Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter, but this production proves Ionesco offers a unique and profound perspective.
Set in a fictional kingdom, Exit the King is literally about the imminent death of 400-year-old King Bérenger, here played by Rhys Ifans. His death is on a strict schedule (the duration of the play) and while he argues with his first wife Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma) about his impending doom and commiserates with his second and preferred wife Queen Marie (Amy Morgan), he progresses, or regresses, through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Marber’s kingdom is anachronistic, colourful and dreamlike. World orders and the weather are discussed in the cold throne room which includes a tannoy, radiators, and Prussian symbols: a large black eagle painted across the cracked back wall, and a Pickelhelm (spiked helmet) worn by The Guard (Derek Griffiths). A red carpet only fit for the King leads to his throne and beyond.
The inaction – for it’s mostly a meditation on death – drifts for the majority of the play. It is willfully uneventful and it does drag, with static characters shouting at each other from across the stage. But there are some good spurts of humour, mainly from Debra Gillett as the servant Juliette.
Ifans as King Bérenger is mesmerizing, outstretching every bit of his life. Equal parts despairing and deviant, childish and surprisingly wise, he finds a universal quality to this King who denies his own immortality. And Varma as Marguerite is appropriately icy until the final moments when she offers up real tenderness.
Exit the King does not build up but instead slowly diminishes, and while that feels frustrating at times, it’s also where Marber’s production really resonates. The final moments are impeccably moving, totally and undeniably erasing the stage, the world, the play, and the King. Daring though occasionally stagnant, Exit the King hits profoundly in its examination of the ultimate truth, showing us indeed that ‘Everyone is the first person ever to die’.
|What||Exit the King, National Theatre review|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
17 Jul 18 – 06 Oct 18, Additional 2pm matinee performances on various dates
|Price||£15 - £65|
|Website||Click here for more information and tickets|