‘A striking, sideways examination of death’: EXIT THE KING – National Theatre

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Ian FosterLeave a Comment

Olivier, National Theatre – until 6 October 2018

There’s something intriguing about the fact that Eugène Ionesco has never been programmed at the National Theatre before, perhaps a long-present Euroscepticism guarding against a writer at the vanguard of the French avant-garde scene (given how much Beckett gets staged, it’s clearly not anti-absurdism). But Rufus Norris has looked to rectify this by commissioning a new version of Le Roi se meurt from Patrick Marber, who also directs here.

And as an absurdist drama, Exit the King suggests a bit of different thinking. On the face of it, it’s a simple enough tale – a man is told he only has a day left to live and struggles to deal with it. But that man is a king – King Bérenger – and he’s over 400 years old. And his kingdom is dying around him, with him, stone walls cracking and crumbling away, its people disappearing into the ether, the darkness swallowing everything up whole.

Inspired by the playwright’s questioning of his own mortality, what emerges is a striking, sideways examination of death and how none of us – prince or pauper – are ready for it. Bérenger’s long, slow acceptance of his fate, through petulant denial and woebegotten anguish, is given visceral life by Rhys Ifans in a performance of existential clowning that can’t help but be strange, yet still manages to find moments of resonance within as the old order of things is overturned.

Around him, supporting artists of the calibre of Adrian Scarborough and Debra Gillett feel underutilised as royal functionaries, as does Amy Morgan’s simpering second wife. It is Indira Varma’s OG Queen Marguerite who stands out most, flintish but fair, her final monologue that ends the play is a sonorous delight. And nothing becomes Exit the King more than its final tableau, a masterclass in less is more from designer Anthony Ward, a vision in poignant elegance as the void swallows us all.

 

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Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."
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Ian Foster on FacebookIan Foster on Twitter
Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."