The country is divided down the middle, ministers are leaving in droves and the leader of the country refuses to leave his post – sound familiar?
The leader of the country has strange hair and an oddly coloured face. He has two wives and the country is divided with the working class supporting him and the middle and upper class against him and he’s leading the country into chaos – sound familiar?
These are just two possible theories about the subtext in Eugène Ionesco’s 1962 play Exit The King which is currently being revived at the Olivier in a new version by Patrick Marber. As is becoming increasingly the modern style, as the audience enters the auditorium, there a couple of actors on stage one of whom is sweeping it. The set has a vast fifty-foot wall at the back with a painting of a heraldic eagle, the royal crest, with a large split right down the middle. There are three objects in front of it covered in large dust sheets that when the sheets are lifted reveal three thrones, one large one on a dais in the centre and two small ones either side. We hear the sound of strange bubbling noises and a runway leads from the stage into the audience – it’s all very surreal. The Guard (played by Derek Griffiths), commands us all to rise and the whole audience obeys. King Bérenger (Rhys Ifans) enters and we’re ready to enter the strange and absurdist world of Ionesco with a little help from Marber who also directs.
We’re informed by The Doctor (Adrian Scarborough) that the King is dying and will be dead by the end of the play (there’s a lot of the braking of the fourth wall). He’s over 400 years old and should have prepared himself for the event but he really doesn’t want to go. He has two wives, Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma) who’s the senior wife and the sensible one. Queen Marie (Amy Morgan) is the King’s favourite and encourages him to hang around – he doesn’t have to die just because the others say he has to. The other member of the cast is Juliette (Debra Gillett) who is at turns a servant, the cleaner (it was she who was sweeping the stage earlier) and a nurse – a general dogsbody and drudge.
The performances from the six strong are all excellent with Ifans channelling a demented Peter O’Toole as he refuses to face his destiny and Scarborough, Griffiths and Gillett as the more comedic characters are a delight. Morgan plays her character with a French accent although there is no real sense of time and place although I presume it’s set somewhere in Europe. The real stand-out performance comes from Varma as the more sensible queen. She has some of the funniest lines and a long speech at the end where she sends the King off to the destiny even he can’t avoid.
The set design from Anthony Ward is spectacular which I think we’ve come to expect the from The National and the Olivier in particular. The end in particular is outstanding as a bridge that starts in the audience seems to stretch to infinity – a true coup de théâtre.
But a spectacular set does not a great play make and I don’t think this is a great play although its considered a classic. It’s basically a comedy but not in a laugh out loud way. There’s a bit of farce, some slapstick and a running gag about non-royals not walking on the red carpet that was done to death. Everything runs like clockwork but it’s all hard edges and there’s not a lot to be loved.
Ionesco wrote the play about his own mortality and how whilst we all know that death is inevitable, we find it hard to accept and whilst we can deal with others around us dying, we just can’t deal with our own demise.
I don’t know the play well enough to know what Marber has brought to it and whether the theories I alluded to at the start of this piece are what he had in mind. But there is “Exit” in the title and the poster and the front of the programme have the characters depicted as playing cards (trumps?) so maybe he wants us to be reminded of the crazy, absurd world we currently live in.
This is a play that I think will divide its audience – some will love it and others hate it – I just thought it was a bit creaky and jaded. There’s a quote from Ionesco in the programme that sums up not only the play but life and the human condition: “Nothing is terrible, everything is terrible. Nothing is comical, everything is tragic, nothing is tragic, everything is comical, everything is real, unreal, possible, impossible, conceivable, inconceivable. Everything is heavy, everything is light”.
Review by Alan Fitter
Somewhere in Europe the kingdom is disintegrating. It’s the last day of King Bérenger’s life. Queen Marguerite is preparing for the end and Queen Marie is in denial. The King is 400 years old and dying, but he’s clinging on for dear life…
This great tragi-comedy is brought to life on the Olivier stage this summer, the first time Eugène Ionesco’s work has been performed at the National Theatre. Patrick Marber (Three Days in the Country, Hedda Gabler) directs his new version of Exit the King with Rhys Ifans (A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic) in the title role and Indira Varma (Man and Superman) as his first Queen.