Olivier, National Theatre – until 6 October 2018
I had low expectations of Patrick Marber’s new version of Ionesco’s absurdist play Exit the King (1962). I thought that Sean Foley’s version of Ionesco’s Amédée didn’t push the political resonances of chaos taking over reason and logic far enough. I also enjoyed (perhaps too much) Matt Trueman’s rather damning review of this production and second-guessed what to expect.
Like Amédée, I thought that the comedy mostly fell flat. And the non-specific ‘house of cards’ setting seemed too conceited and a reminder of an old children’s educational TV show, Megamaths. However, Exit the King’s interest in the crumbling of a kingdom is relevant, and I found its musings on death – and Anthony Ward’s visual representation of this – emotionally affecting.
It takes an NT stalwart of Marber’s calibre to have the nerve to get the audience to stand on King Bérénger’s entrance through the Olivier stalls on a regal red carpet which leads onto the stage. It was furthermore intriguing that not only did most stand but remained standing until invited to be seated by Rhys Ifans. I’m unsure whether this was due to the power of Ifans’ stage presence or a particularly royalist audience. I remained seated.
Most of the characters – the doctor (Adrian Scarborough), the older queen (Indira Varma), the guard (Derek Griffiths) – are two-dimensional puppets and so the actors can’t do much internalising and instead have fun with playing types, buffoons and veneers. Ifans does something similar, lurching around the stage like Shameless’ Frank Gallagher, a sense of dangerous unpredictability about his performance. The funniest moment, I found, was when he’s rolling about on the floor in denial of his pending death, reverting to his childhood and says in a toddler-like way ‘I want a biscuit’.
But occasionally Ifans’ performance is something more than just posturing, reaching something at least close to profundity as he begins to realise the inevitability of his situation. This 400 year old king, like all of us, must shuffle off his mortal coil. If he carries on, the country will only suffer. People are drowning, universities are falling into the abyss, and havoc is reaped across the land. Only death, and its opportunity for rebirth, will save it. As his two queens and court hands count down the minutes until the king’s death ‘at the end of the play’, the fascination with death’s finite and levelling nature take hold. What is afterwards? Anything? Nothing? Why do we tend not to prepare for death? What will we leave behind?
But overall, writing this a few weeks after seeing it, Marber’s version isn’t good enough. It is set in its own definite world and yet that world is too equivocal, with nothing and no one to really care about. Thus, it’s merely a literary exercise. Thankfully, there is Ward’s design: the throne room of a castle, the walls of which are complete with growing chasms, and hidden with nooks and crannies for the cast to play in. As the king and the kingdom continue to disintegrate, walls fly out and sink into the Olivier’s drum revolve, leaving only Bérénger’s throne. Finally persuaded to follow his destiny, Ifans slowly but surely follows the throne back on the red carpet into the distance. Eventually they fade away until, in the end, there is nothing, nothing… nothing… until 6thOctober.
Rhys Ifans and Adrian Scarborough in Exit the King. Credit: Simon Annand