Exit the King

Posted by Laurence Green

A fine central performance from Rhys Ifans, as the manic, self-obsessed monarch in Ionescu's Exit the King, cannot prevent the show from disappointing, writes Laurence Green.

Exit the King - Rhys Ifans

The image of a raging, narcissistic despot convinced he can cheat death has many resonances today, so Ionesco’s 1962 play Exit the King (NT’s Olivier auditorium), adapted and directed by Patrick Marber, promises to pack a topical punch but sadly falls short.

Somewhere in Europe, the kingdom is disintegrating. It’s the last days of King Bérenger’s life. His first wife Queen Marguerite is preparing for the end and his second wife Queen Marie is in denial. The King is 400 years old and dying but he is clinging on for dear life. With his magical powers gone, the ailing monarch is incredulous, outraged and pathetically determined to cling onto the hope of recovery. Those in attendance, apart from his two wives, comprise a physician, a guard and a domestic skivvy, who look on with a mixture of impatience, officiousness and tacit sympathy. They’re undisguisedly counting down to the moment when he will face his final curtain.

This 100-minute piece starts off promisingly enough, but after an intriguing first 20 minutes, becomes pretentious and repetitious. The whole play lacks any dramatic development and is in effect an extended death scene, and emerges as a blend of pantomime and angst-ridden darkness. The characters tell the audience the king will die at the end of the play and frequently remind us how many minuted it is until that moment, so that when it does eventually come, it is a relief for all concerned.

Anthony Ward’s imaginative and stylish set is dominated by a regal throne and plush carpet, but the main set piece is a large wall with a crack down the middle to demonstrate that the kingdom is rapidly falling apart.

The real saving grace of this production, however, is a fine central performance from Rhys Ifans as the manic, self-obsessed King, keen to cling to the last vestiges of grandeur. There’s something initially reptilian about Ifans as he totters into view, divesting himself of his ceremonial robes to reveal sleek blue pyjamas. Ifans mixes commanding physicality and ethereal strangeness and, with his ghostly white face, long lank hair and pitiless expression, he seems unreachable, as well as irresponsible. Indira Varma, dressed in an exquisite black velvet gown, brings a touch of glamorous sophistication as his frosty first wife, Marguerite, while Amy Morgan’s Marie simply tells him what he’d like to hear. Debra Gillet’s pratfalling, caricatured char-lady raises a few laughs, while Derek Griffiths as the guard and Adrian Scarborough as the doctor, trundling a large telescope around on a trolley, provide solid support.

But although this is the theatre of the absurd, it lacks the necessary sense of logic and tragic farce for us to take it all seriously. A major disappointment!

Exit the King

Plays until Saturday 6 October 2018 at the Olivier auditorium, National Theatre.

Box office: 020 7452 300


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