“Which theatre’s it in?”
So begins many a trip to the National Theatre at the moment. Because a trend does seem to have developed, particularly under Rufus Norris, for anything a bit ropey or worse to be in the poor old Olivier. With precious few exceptions – Translations, Follies, Amadeus – most of the Olivier’s recent output has not been good. Common. St George and the Dragon. Macbeth. It’s not a happy list.
And that list now has another entry: Exit the King. Adapted from Eugene Ionesco’s French absurdist comedy by Patrick Marber (who also directs), Exit the King, in a nutshell, tells the story of the death of the titular King, who’s told he must die and then does, in real time. It’s no more interesting than I’ve made it sound though it is, sadly, considerably less concise.
Exit the King is often billed as ‘anti-theatre theatre’, and if that makes you throw up in your mouth a bit then well done, that is the correct reaction. I’m not really sure what the phrase is meant to mean in theory, but what it means in practice here is 100 minutes (which have seldom felt longer) of self-indulgent, sneeringly pretentious, look-how-clever-and-ironic-we-are nonsense. It’s eye-wateringly tedious.
The frequent, long and obscure meditations on death and love seem more like endurance events delivered by characters who are no more than archetypes used to force the plot forward. It’s also weirdly unfunny for something billed as a comedy. Why this play is being revived – especially in a theatre as huge as the Olivier – I have genuinely no idea. If it had had an interval, I would have left in it.
That the play is so weak is a huge shame as the production itself is actually rather good. In particular, Anthony Ward’s design and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting are brilliant. The set starts as a sort of ‘Alice in Wonderland meets the USSR’ situation, all imposing black eagles, comic book colours and a massive crack down the middle of the stage to show that all is not well. The way it is subsequently pulled apart as the King dies and wanders off into the great beyond – dark and bright red; a bridge over the hole where the set used to be – is genuinely memorable, and actually a bit frightening. It’s a really visually effective and well as visually arresting piece. Perhaps the best way to see this play would be literally that – just see it, wearing noise cancelling headphones to drown out the script.
The production is also blessed by a cast (of six) that is superb. It would be a joy to watch them with some better material, as it is they at least break the tedium. The central triumvirate in particular are all great actors on excellent form. In the title role, Rhys Ifans is funny, moving and properly charismatic. He brings a supremely watchable faded rockstar glam to his part that totally works, especially with this set. Adrian Scarborough is, as ever, complete class as the King’s long suffering Doctor – wry, funny and just slightly unsettling. Indira Varma steals the show as the sassy and commanding Queen Marguerite. Her no nonsense wisdom delivered with trademark general awesomeness makes her scenes by far the most entertaining.
The thing is, though, no amount of swagger in the production and brilliance in the cast can ever make up for the base material of a production, the actual play, not being very good. A bad play is a bad play, however you dress it up. The dressing up of Exit the King is great, but there’s no saving it. I suppose if, for some reason, you want to see this play then this production is undoubtedly the thing for you. But really, do you actually want to see this play? Honestly? (No, you don’t.)
Exit the King is in the Olivier at the NT on selected dates until 6th October.
I sat in F27 in the Circle for this one and paid £15 for the highly questionably privilege of doing so. There are no bad seats in the Olivier, so at least I had a good view.