Exit the King
National (Olivier) Theatre
A play structured around a countdown can exhilarate an audience as well as the best Hollywood thriller or, in the case of Patrick Marber’s new version of the final play in Eugene Ionesco’s Berenger series, it can turn a performance into an endurance event.
The fault with this production lies somewhere between the original Ionesco device — an aging King is told he has approximately an hour and a half to live but has not lived thoughtfully enough to die philosophically — and the cycling pace of Marber’s direction.
Along with regular updates on the time (T-minus 55 minutes until applause!), Rhys Ifans (Berenger) travels through stages of self-oriented grief.
He must come to terms with death in order to relinquish life and to give his kingdom a chance of surviving him.
But Ifans’s anger looks very much like his denial — both magisterial and stroppy. His lanky body moves with bathos between pomposity and frailty so it feels like watching a characteristically inebriated Peter Cook perform Lear.
The second third of the play drags interminably, as Ifans is made to ricochet between these milestones of mortality, with Amy Morgan’s irritating — and, for some reason, French — Queen Marie offering motivational pep talks to bring him back to the side of the living.
Indira Varma’s statuesque and exasperated Queen Marguerite is the pillar of both plot and production, steadfastly refusing to let the danse macabre slide too far into reverse.
The hints of her supernatural power, the suggested inheritance from her dying tyrannical husband, are tantalising but never developed.
Derek Griffiths and Debra Gillett play the mechanical roles of Guard and Nurse / Juliette with adept flourishes of physical comedy, breaking the fourth wall to the enjoyment of the audience at several points.
Overall, the dynamism of the cast seems trapped in a production that never allows itself to reach the anarchic heights of real absurdity.
The lighting design of Hugh Vanstone merits special mention for a fantastically dramatic final image. And The Olivier does at least have very good air conditioning.
Ends October 6 2018. Box Office www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
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