Olivier, National Theatre – until 6 October 2018
Ionesco wrote Exit the King when he thought he was dying. As it turned out, he wasn’t and lived for another 30 years. However, his brush with mortality let loose this highly allegorical play about the death of a king and a society which is as absurd as you would expect from the monarch of absurdist theatre, but also a humane account of the fear and the process of death.
The National Theatre brings a fascinating cast to the story of King Berenger, who has lived and ruled for 400 years. A despot who has committed genoicide, he is played by Rhys Ifans, a wild and unruly actor who is becoming more interesting with age. In a long, lank wig and alarming spiky crown, he sprawls and leers over the stage, in complete denial about his demise, predicted by Queen Marguerite and his doctor for the end of the play, in 140 minutes’ time.
Not only is his life ending, for reasons as much theatrical as physical, but his kingdom is being conquered, his subjects vanishing, and the wall of his throne room has split in two, in Anthony Ward’s dramatic set. Each of the characters remaining in his dwindling realm is played with both verve and subtlety, a tricky balance to maintain in a play that is both allegorical and realistic at the same time.
Marguerite, a haughty and snobbish Indira Varma who eventually turns out to be the one person in control, is not the only queen. She has been usurped by a younger, dizzier model (Amy Morgan) whose dismay increases as she realises that her world is, literally, collapsing. Adrian Scarborough, who never disappoints, is a fussy doctor who appears to be also a mage and claims to have “only been obeying orders” when his involvement in a past massacre is brought up. Debra Gillett’s general dogsbody, Juliette, steals the show whenever she appears, doing the dirty work for the King. Derek Griffiths plays a sergeant major-style guard whose public pronouncements on the King’s health (“The King is gagging”) become increasingly strange.
The play is a challenge to stage, simply a progression towards an ending we know is coming from the very start. However, Patrick Marber’s direction drives a developing narrative to the fore as the tyrannical King who names his cat “The Jew” is, remarkably, also shown as a man whose experience of death unites him with everybody else. Ifans comes into his own as he leaves behind his grotesque behaviour, casting off his status and ego to accept the end. This view of redemption is, perhaps, over-optimistic, but a fascinating way for Ionesco, as he thought, to sign off with a final message. Ward’s set collapses into the Olivier Theatre’s void and Ifans walks into the distance and out of sight, leaving the audience to contemplate a play that is much more than a curiosity – a structurally and thematically ambitious attempt to resolve the horrors of the 20th century.