BWW Review: EXIT THE KING, National Theatre
Exit the King at the National Theatre has a beautiful design and wonderful performances from some of the cast, but it ultimately falls flat. While Patrick Marber's new version of Eugène Ionesco's absurdist drama about a dying king has its good moments, it seems to drag on for a play that is only an hour and 40 minutes long.
This tragicomedy is the first time Ionesco's work has been done at the National Theatre. It depicts King Bérenger's last day as his kingdom crumbles around him as he becomes more fearful of the idea of his inevitable death. His first wife, Queen Marguerite, tries to coax him into accepting his fate, while his beloved second wife, Queen Marie, continues to deny it.
While it is certainly an absurdist play, it's less so than some of Ionesco's other works. The first section of the play was rather funny, but it lost much of its humour as it went on. The middle of the play seems to stall and makes it overtly apparent that this is a play in which not much happens. The saving graces of the show are Rhys Ifans' performance and its design, which make parts of it enjoyable at least.
Ifans is impressive as the 400-year-old king who becomes more frail over the course of the play. In the beginning, he has a chaotic energy despite his weakness that commands the stage, but by the end he seems a shell of a man.
He brings many laughs as he falls about the stage dressed in luxurious pyjamas and plays the typical absurd despotic ruler, but his intense fear of dying is haunting by the end. I was very impressed by the physicality of the role and how he seemed to age significantly in a short period of time.
Indira Varma is elegant and every bit a queen as the king's first wife, Marguerite. She has a quiet command of the stage and her monologue at the end was entrancing, if a bit long. Debra Gillett is hilarious as the maid, Juliette, and adds much needed comedy to latter half of the play.
Anthony Ward's design of the show is one of its shining features. The main set piece is a large wall with a crack down the middle to demonstrate that the kingdom is falling apart. The way that they transform the set by the end of the production is stunning, and an interesting use of the Olivier Theatre.
The costumes are also lovely, particularly Marguerite's black velvet gown. The lighting, done by Hugh Vanstone, is wonderful, especially at the end of the piece where it helps completely change the mood.
Ultimately a beautiful set and great performances can't save this show, which starts out well but struggles through to the end. While Ifans gives a striking performance, the play is less funny than one would expect from an absurdist tragicomedy.
Photo Credit: Simon Annand