Exit The King (National Theatre) - Review

Exit The King (National Theatre) - Review
Patrick Marber, director of the National Theatre’s new Olivier spectacle Exit the King, seems to have a habit of reinventing classical texts for a modern world. Just recently, Marber penned Ivo van Hove’s widely acclaimed Hedda Gabler and took on writer-director duties for the rather more divisive Don Juan in Soho. Whilst loveable Scotsman David Tennant took centre stage in Don Juan, Marber now turns to roguish Welshman Rhys Ifans to carry his latest bid: adapting and directing Ionesco’s absurd drama Exit the King. As King Bérenger approaches the final moments of his 400-and-something year life, he must grapple with his ego to find the serenity to accept his death gracefully. As much as the set-up and farcical elements are typical of Ionesco’s absurdist, avant-garde form, there’s a more Brechtian vein running through much of Exit the King. There’s something Godot-esque about Bérenger waiting for his inevitable demise, grappling with futility, religion and the search for serenity. Ifans commands the stage as the King, with Marber’s script giving him the tools to debate and pontificate Ionesco’s philosophy with increasing heart and urgency. Ifans has concrete comedy pedigree as loveable idiot Spike in Notting Hill and retired DJ in The Boat That Rocked, which seems bizarre as here he succeeds in his lamenting but falls a little flat in his comedic efforts. Whether that criticism belongs to Marber or Ifans is a little muddy, but some of the punchlines in the (admittedly clichéd) script feel brushed over, leaving a first act of unreliable hit-and-miss gags. However, as the play continues, and the comedy slowly peters out in favour of drama, the play goes from strength to strength, led by Ifans’ rousing dramatic turn.

“There’s something Godot-esque about Bérenger waiting for his inevitable demise, grappling with futility, religion and the search for serenity.”

Ifans’ equal proves to be Indira Varma as Lady Marguerite, Bérenger’s first wife, rewarded with some of the largest laughs for her pointed, condescending interjections reminiscent of a regal Sybill Fawlty. More impressive is her winding, trancelike monologue as the play reaches its unexpectedly moving conclusion to the backdrop of Anthony Ward’s stunning design. For the vast majority of the performance, Ward’s design consists of a gargantuan stone backdrop painted with the King’s magnificent insignia with a crevice formed down the centre. The backdrop complements the play’s bizarre tone, but truly comes into its element in the play’s stunning final scenes, truly demonstrating the technical potential of the Olivier. The concluding moments of design evoke a suitably awe-inspiring effect of sheer beauty, the specifics of which I won’t spoil here. Compared to Marber’s Don Juan, which draws to a similar introspective conclusion, the representation of the lead’s psyche is significantly more impressive and resonant with all of the resources the National Theatre provides. This finale alone justifies its place in the National’s largest, most iconic theatre.

“It leaves a slightly disappointing taste in the mouth.”

There is some interest in the fact that Exit the King is the first time the National has performed Ionesco since its creation. Perhaps this production demonstrates the reasons behind this. As an odd blend of absurdist comedy and existentialist theatre, Ionesco demands a diabolical balance of comedy and drama far more nuanced than other, simpler twentieth century melodramas. Even when executed well, the style is an acquired taste proving divisive to a mass-market. It is therefore surely commercially and artistically risky to invest in a long run of an all-guns-blazing production. But that is certainly something to be praised. Risk should be sought and encouraged within the theatre to keep the form innovative and fresh. In this case, where some of the risks fall a little flat and some of the play’s demands fail to be fully realized, there’s still acclaim in the very attempt to fulfill demands, even if it leaves a slightly disappointing taste in the mouth. Upon reflection, there’s a lot to be enjoyed in Exit the King, particular Rhys Ifans’ mesmerizing performance as King Bérenger and Ward’s remarkable production design. However, in this case, Ionesco’s script proves a challenge too great for this company to realize fully. Though the reflection on the finiteness of life is truly thought-provoking, it comes at the expense of the comedy which unfortunately reduces Ionesco’s signature style to a Brechtian reflection surrounded by a second-rate farce.

3/5

Image: Simon Annand
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