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Exit the King, National Theatre review - vivid, brilliant production that somehow leaves you feeling empty | reviews, news & interviews

Exit the King, National Theatre review - vivid, brilliant production that somehow leaves you feeling empty

Exit the King, National Theatre review - vivid, brilliant production that somehow leaves you feeling empty

As the manic, self-obsessed king, Rhys Ifans cuts an extraordinary figure

A wonderful Beckett-worthy moment reveals only the king's headImages by Simon Annand

The image of a raging, narcissistic tyrant, convinced that he can crush even death into oblivion, has all too many resonances these days. So this visually spectacular National Theatre resurrection of Ionesco’s 1962 play, adapted and directed by Patrick Marber, promises to pack a punch beyond its absurdist proposition of a selfish child-man trying to dodge his mortality.

The fact that the punch never quite seems to land is something of a mystery, since the evening features a crack cast, several brilliant one-liners, and a sensational set. Anthony Ward’s design is dominated by a large coat of arms with a heraldic eagle, riven down the middle by a lightning-shaped chasm. Shuttered windows, out of which different cast members occasionally appear and disappear like cuckoos in clocks to declaim their lines, add to the sense that this is a world built from a demented toybox.

Indira Varma as Queen Marguerite in Exit the King, photo by Simon AnnandThe 400-year-old king, we discover very quickly, is dying. We are asked to contemplate this first through the perspective of his first wife, Indira Varma’s superbly witty, brittle-as-cut-glass Queen Marguerite (pictured right), and his second wife, Amy Morgan’s pink-clad, shamelessly Eurotrash Queen Marie. Marber’s satire-streaked adaptation gives Marguerite many of the best lines as she chides the frivolous loved-up Marie to, "Get a grip. The king has no need of a mucus fountain." Going for the jugular, she continues "[he’s been] exploring your holes and now his kingdom is full of them."

Ionesco wrote this play after a bout of illness in which he thought he was going to die. On one level this is the third play in his absurdist cycle featuring Bérenger as a depressed everyman, on another it portrays – as a very different artist put it – the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. As the manic, self-obsessed king, clinging with all the dignity of an incontinent puppy onto his mortality, Rhys Ifans cuts an extraordinary presence from the moment he glares out of the set, his white face streaked with a gash of lipstick. When he finally processes onto the stage, all long blond hair and blue silk pyjamas – part rock-star emerging from rehab, part Joker in a pack of cards – there is a powerful sense of a man determined to make his delusions reality.

Some scholars have described Exit the King as the most Beckettian of Ionesco’s plays. Here, there is a wonderfully Beckett-worthy moment in which the lights go up to reveal only the king’s head, "suspended" on a ceremonial sheet, blinking out at the audience. But it’s also the moment at which the production’s momentum begins to creak. Marked by its vivid brilliance, there’s a sense that all the best ideas have been served up in the first half hour, and that now we must hope together that the king’s death comes as quickly and painlessly as possible.

We want much more from both Ifans and Marber in the bite and blackness of their comedy

Marber and Ifans have collaborated before on the Donmar Warehouse production of Don Juan in Soho, where the chemistry between the magnesium-flame bright humour of Marber’s writing and Ifans’ charisma made for a comically explosive evening. Here, perhaps the problem is that we live in a world so dominated by toy-box tyrants, we want much more from both Ifans and Marber in the bite and blackness of their comedy. No, it’s not fair to say that an Ionesco adaptation – the first to be performed at the National Theatre – should try and take on the full madness of contemporary politics. But theatre is full of chemical reactions – some of the most interesting between events outside the building and what’s portrayed on stage – and in a script happy to joke about Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, it feels an opportunity has been missed.

This despite the fact that as a director Marber shows his usual deft hand. He brings out beautiful performances not just from Ifans and Varma, but from Debra Gillett as the dustily downtrodden Juliette, Adrian Scarborough as the self-serving hypocritical doctor, and Derek Griffiths as the dutifully oppressed guard. Perhaps the most powerful moment of the production is in its shudder of realism, when Marguerite refers to the king’s massacre of her own family. The final coup de théâtre is stunning, too. Yet somehow you are left feeling empty.


Ifans is part rock-star emerging from rehab, part Joker in a pack of cards


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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