Review - Exit the King starring Rhys Ifans at the National Theatre
Rhys Ifans rages against the dying of the light as the 400-year-old King in Eugène Ionesco’s famed tragi-comedy. This is the first time that the absurdist playwright’s work has been produced at the National Theatre and, with Anthony Ward’s ingenious, deeply symbolic set design as a backdrop, it feels at home.
A towering wall with a royal coat of arms greets us, split vertically down the middle. King Bérenger, who once controlled everything and everyone in his kingdom, has let his realm crumble to nothing. All the signs are there – he’s going to die, in precisely 68 minutes according to Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma). Dressed in blue satin pyjamas with long greasy hair and a ghostly, bleeding face, the King arrives crowned with an over-inflated sense of worth, struggling to imagine a universe where he doesn’t exist. In the midst of the chaos, we see a reflection of ourselves grappling with the concept of our own mortality. Theatre of the Absurd aims to do just that: bring the audience face to face with the bleakness of the human condition without the comfort of realism to soothe the blow. It is refreshing to see a play that shatters theatre’s conventions so intensely at the National, with characters that are acutely aware that they are in a play treading the boards.
Much like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Exit The King is about the mundane passing of time. Although death comes for the King unexpectedly, it certainly doesn’t come quickly and the audience shares in the painful boredom of his followers. For a lot of Exit The King, nothing happens – it certainly isn’t a play for the masses.
Superb performances carry the production, however, with Ifans and Varma standing out above the rest. The portrayal of Ifans’ narcissistic King is also a credit to Patrick Marber’s direction. His physical descent into death is so subtle, blink and you miss it, signifiers such as his greying hair and the deteriorating state of his clothes, along with his dwindling mobility make for a convincing transformation. The emotional stages of dying - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately, dignified acceptance - are equally as plausible.
Just before the King passes away, he gives a lengthy speech about the death of a cat. A bizarre, outwardly meaningless moment and yet, you could hear a pin drop. An extract from Ionesco’s memoir (printed in the programme) comes to mind: “Man in fact is petty: the problem of death is a human problem. A cow doesn’t think about death. A cow isn’t petty”. Pitted against the King’s younger, second wife Queen Marie (Amy Morgan), Varma’s Queen Marguerite remains the dignified voice of reason to the very end. The biggest laugh of the production is hers, when she cuts in on a conversation between her love rival and the King discussing how they used to wake up and stare into each other’s eyes. “You won’t tomorrow,” she quips.
A thin thrust stage carries the King to his final resting spot, his throne, which moves hauntingly into the darkness as the set’s splintered plaster falls away to nothing. Oblivious to the rapid passing of time, when death finally comes the only thing we can really do is laugh at it. Shifting between slapstick comedy and moments of pitiful venerability, Exit The King finds meaning in absurdity.
Photo credit Simon Annand