Exit the King at the National Theatre
For too long, Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Exit the King feels like panto for poshos. And though that might not be entirely fair to this production of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist drama, a sublimely staged ending can’t completely make up for the creaky comedy that obscures the narrative’s pathos.
King Berenger (Rhys Ifans) is on his way out. The monarch has been given 68 minutes to live by his doctor (Adrian Scarborough) and is being urged towards the exit by his first queen (Indira Varma). The only thing is, he doesn’t want to go. Despite living for centuries, the royal hasn’t prepared for the inevitable; his death is an inconvenience he’s determined to overcome.
The real disappointment at the heart of this production is that Marber – a writer for The Day Today and Alan Partridge – has overseen something so comedically flaccid. Littered with groaners, the piece is perilously close, at points, to becoming Carry On Ruling, more asinine than absurd. And it needn’t be this way. For when the play starts to take Berenger’s second infancy more seriously – his memory lapsing and his physical frailties no longer punchlines – the work becomes rather poignant, without dulling the cruelness of the royal’s rule.
What the adaptation does do consistently well is to make man empire and empire man. The director is keen not only to follow the humane, wretched journey into death, but use the protagonist’s symbiotic relationship to his crumbling kingdom as a comment on the destruction wrought by leaders and systems that cling on to power. There’s a stench of Brexit Britain to a “proto-dystopia” full of “10,000 abandoned bistros” and a “few thousand geriatrics”; it’s not hard to see the King’s navy-blue PJs as a Tory uniform.
Looking like Denethor from Lord of the Rings, only in Joker makeup and silk pyjamas, Ifans makes for a striking lead, bellowing and bawling as he crawls towards the other side. Varma is every bit his equal, oozing royal acerbity as Marguerite – basically a villainous Disney queen. The rest of the performances, however, are irritatingly broad, especially Amy Morgan’s ‘Allo ‘Allo! Queen Marie.
For much of the running time, Anthony Ward’s set – a towering, cracked coat of arms fronted by three ornate thrones – feels like a half-hearted attempt at playfulness. And then we get to the end and the expanse of the Olivier is finally revealed, in a way that rivals anything seen on that troubled stage of late. It’s this shift, facilitated by Ward, that allows Marber to realise a haunting closing image that finally unlocks the weight and peaceful terror of the King’s exit.
Photo: Simon Annand
Exit the King is at the National Theatre from 17th July until 8th September 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.