Paul T Davies reviews Patrick Marber’s production of Ionesco’s Exit The King now playing at the National Theatre.
Exit the King
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
25 July 2018
A little known work by Ionesco is giving a new version by Patrick Marber, who also directs. The King is about four hundred years old, but, he is informed, “Your Majesty, by the end of the play you will die”. His kingdom crumbling, a crack in his palace becomes a chasm until the stage is empty, and we are given a countdown to how many minutes he has left until death. This had the effect of making me look towards the exits because, truth be told, the reason why Exit The King is rarely staged is because it’s not very good. At ninety minutes without an interval, this piece outstays it’s welcome by about forty minutes. Marber’s version sounds fresh with its contemporary language and references, but the whole thing feels dated, like the kind of production staged by the Royal Court in the 1960s, when Theatre of the Absurd was THE trend, and, like Pity which is currently playing at the Royal Court, it takes a comic strip approach and everyone plays caricatures rather characters. This becomes tedious beyond words very quickly, as the production plods along until we are released.
There are compensations. Mainly Rhys Ifans as the King, playing it something like Joker on Valium, he manages to be playful in places, his voice hinting at Prince Charles but at its best when he takes his Welsh accent off the leash and let’s it lilt along the text. His physicality is good, and he has captured the trick of looking bored- I’m not sure if this is deliberate. I enjoyed Debra Gillett as Juliette the maid, who has good slapstick skills and does a great prat fall. Indira Verma is strong as Queen Marguerite, who stands by the king as much as possible and sees him off to the grave, and Adrian Scarborough brings a manic energy to The Doctor, but not even he can save this show from tedium, as hard as he tries. Derek Griffiths does what The Guard is expected to do- mainly make announcements, and Amy Morgan is irritating as Queen Marie, a dreadful caricature beyond saving.
The most effective section is the last, when Queen Marguerite mimes lifting the burdens off the Kings’ decimated body as the set literally fractures and disappears behind them, but even this goes on for so long you end up wanting to push the old duffer off the ledge and get it over with. Anthony Ward’s design creates a proscenium arch feel in the massive Olivier, and maybe the problem is that this is simply the wrong play for the wrong auditorium. While the Dorfman continually stages contemporary work of innovation and excitement, the main stage at the National has another duff summer production on its hands. It’s hard to think of, apart from students of Absurdist theatre, who this production is for, and seems a very insipid choice for a revival.