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A powerhouse star vehicle for Rhys Ifans, writer-director Patrick Marber’s new revival of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist 1962 tragicomedy Exit the King opens like a slapstick Monty Python sketch but ends on a poignant Shakespearean flourish. Indeed, Marber first had the idea of casting Ifans after witnessing his electrifying performance as the Fool in Deborah Warner’s 2016 production of King Lear, led by Glenda Jackson. This time, he gets to gorge on a full royal banquet of emotions himself, sinking his teeth into a juicy role previously played by Alec Guinness, Geoffrey Rush and other heavyweights.
Ionesco wrote Exit the King when he was in poor health and feared for his own mortality. The Romanian-born French dramatist intended the play to be an “apprenticeship in dying,” a self-help guide to calmly preparing for the grim inevitability of death. His most classical work in tone and structure, it centers on ailing monarch Berenger the First (Ifans) as he works through various stages of denial, anger, depression and grudging acceptance toward his impending demise. Over the course of the play, the king becomes not just a surrogate for the author but for the entire audience, too.
Marber has given Ionesco’s text a light polish, winking to 21st-century sensibilities with wry jokes about mindfulness and global warming, but he mostly remains faithful to the story’s fable-like timeless universality. This production is not a radical reinvention, more a respectful reboot of a slightly dated chamber piece that occasionally feels a little too small for the cavernous dimensions of the Olivier, the National Theatre’s largest performance space. All the same, the combined marquee allure of Ifans and Game of Thrones veteran Indira Varma should ensure healthy ticket sales. There is certainly no time to get bored in Marber’s brisk 100-minute single-act treatment.
The setting is a surreal kingdom, ruled by Berenger’s despotic playboy monarch for centuries, which is now symbolically shrinking and collapsing just as his life ebbs away. Blithely dismissing the diagnosis of his clownishly sinister doctor (Adrian Scarborough), the king insists his health is fine. His ditzy second wife, Queen Marie (Amy Morgan), soothes him with flowery platitudes and hollow hopes. But his semi-estranged first wife, the formidable Queen Marguerite (Varma), still loves him enough to tell him the blunt truth: “You’re going to die at the end of the play,” she proclaims with a Brechtian sideways glance at the audience.
A natural lord of misrule on both stage and screen, Ifans plays the megalomaniac monarch with obvious relish, his haughty accent and preening body language seemingly modeled on the late Peter O’Toole. He arrives onstage in pajamas and regal robes, his face smeared in white powder and red lipstick like some freakish hybrid of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But as Berenger slowly resigns himself to his impending death, Ifans becomes stiffer and frailer, his face and hair draining of color. By the end, his royal superpowers spent, he is inescapably Lear-like, babbling and ashen as he shuffles blindly into oblivion. This is a riveting, full-blooded performance.
Exit the King marks Marber’s debut in the Olivier, and his fairly straight production betrays a certain cautious unease in finally getting to play with a much bigger toybox. He largely shuns the high-tech effects and video projections widely used in contemporary West End theater, for example. The colorful period costumes and antique stage props are resolutely analog, vaguely invoking some Ruritanian principality stranded in the late 19th century. Anthony Ward’s set, a towering castle wall adorned with a Prussian-style coat of arms which has been cleft in two by a cataclysmic crack, is visually impressive but somewhat static and monolithic, at least until the bravura final scene.
Marber holds out until the poetic climax before deploying the Olivier’s famously deep drum revolve, which allows Ward’s set to recede and disintegrate just as the king himself crumbles into nothing. A bold response to Ionesco’s bald stage directions, this dreamlike effect recalls the heartbreaking memory-wipe scenes in Michel Gondry’s 2004 sci-fi rom-com Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A little more of this imaginative audacity would have been welcome in a production that chiefly relies on its charismatic star to provide the emotional fireworks.
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