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Exit the King

Eugène Ionesco, In a New Version by Patrick Marber
National Theatre
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre

In rehearsals for Exit the King, centre Adrian Scarborough, Rhys Ifans, Debra Gillett Credit: Simon Annand

Exit the King forms one of a quartet of plays featuring the central character of Bérenger, of which the most famous in this country is Rhinoceros.

On this occasion, Rhys Ifans is 483- (sic) year-old King Bérenger, whose life is unusual to say the least. Believing in his own mortality, the King has become a despotic monarch of a country that has gradually dwindled and is showing cracks as wide as the symbolic fissure in the royal coat of arms. Not only has the kingdom seen better times but the citizenship is reduced in number to a mere six.

The King’s marital position is as ambivalent as his attitude to the people (all three of them). Dressed in magisterial black, Queen Marguerite played by Indira Varma is dignified but can be quick to anger, perpetually frustrated by her shallow replacement. Looking rather like Cyndi Lauper in her pomp, Amy Morgan takes the role of the far more supportive and considerably younger Queen Marie.

As the 100-minute production opens, the King begins to meditate on mortality, spurred on not only by his two wives but also Adrian Scarborough as a doctor who doubles as an astrologer and seems to be just as much of a quack whichever hat he dons.

The new version of the play written by Patrick Marber, who also directs, uses memorable, muscular language to convey ideas, almost all of which eventually come back to the perennial subject of death. As the King is beginning to realise, despite his desire for immortality, even the greatest in the land are not immune from the Grim Reaper’s visit, even if they can stave it off longer than many of their put-upon subjects.

As one would expect from a playwright renowned for his absurdist tendencies, the play can be as madcap as Anthony Ward’s set, which has elements of Heath Robinson and makes a strong symbolic gesture as the evening draws to its close.

There are undoubtedly a number of very funny moments but the majority of the play is compiled from speeches and dialogues about the inevitability of death, which is hardly the cheeriest of subjects.

The performances are good, with Rhys Ifans capably conveying the manic panic of a man who realises that his time is almost up, while the bickering Queens are amusing polar opposites.

Although this play, first performed professionally in 1962, may not be the easiest piece to watch, it has the advantage of being part of the Travelex £15 season.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher