This week in quite different productions two Kings will be forced to confront the limits of their power, question whether they are fit to govern the realm and contemplate their own mortality for the first time. On both occasions what the audience sees will be the death pangs of their reign, the final struggle for autonomy and influence as they fruitlessly cling to power while those around them slowly withdraw support for their declining monarch, abandoning them to their inevitable fate. With press performances for the emotive King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre and the National Theatre’s quirky take on Ionesco’s absurdist drama Exit the King falling on successive nights, thematically there is considerably more that unites than divides these beleaguered princes.
Absurdist dramas are not quite so in vogue as they once were, and while the odd production pops-up at pub theatres and fringe venues, these 1950 and 60s classics rarely make it to the main stages. Modern attempts to recreate the anarchic oddity of their predecessors can feel rather forced or too consciously zany as the rather tiresome Pity provided this week, yet the best absurdist work succeeds and survives because beneath the strange surface it has something important to say about the state of the world or the human condition. Exit the King plays with our fears of death and the harsh inevitability of our demise; prince or pauper, it comes to us all regardless.
The 1950-70s were a hugely experimental time in European drama, and the era has left us with some of the twentieth-century’s best-known dramatists – Pinter, Beckett and Ionesco. But the work can be difficult to watch today with its loops of logic and flights of fancy that can seem daunting and incomprehensible in our relatively conventional West End structures. Pinter’s focus on tone rather than plot can be confusing, while the increasingly elaborate chaos or surreal lack of purpose in Beckett and Ionesco can make it hard to see their point when nothing appears to happen. Fortunately, Exit the King is one of Ionesco’s more straightforward stories with a handy time-limited structure that drives the play.
King Berenger wakes up one morning, over 400 years into his reign, to discover this is the day he will die. Having lived a vibrant life with two wives, both still present at court, and a series of great victories to look back on Berenger refuses to believe this is his last day on earth. Surrounded by his regal first wife Maguerite, and the more vibrant (and much younger) second wife Marie, as well as his physician, cleaner and guard, the King will pass through the various stages of acceptance before the fatal moment arrives, but will he go quietly?
Known for his emotional reinvigoration of the classics including Don Juan in Soho and Three Days on the Country alongside his new work as a writer, Patrick Marber directs with skill, favouring the more macabre and foreboding aspects of the plot over its sillier elements. And in doing so, Marber highlights the parallels with King Lear. This faux medieval world also reflects a view of power that Shakespeare also knew, of monarchs divinely appointed by God, sitting above the petty rules of the common man. They command, control and shape society around them and believe themselves capable of fantastical acts. When Berenger at lasts realises his powers are waning, Ionesco represents this as a loss of magic, and the protagonist is no longer able to command the air to move or someone’s hat to rise at will. Like Lear, stripped of the ceremony and mystique of kingship all his frailties are exposed and the subsequent decline is rapid.
Both men call upon the natural world as a symbol of their lost power, failing to stem the tides that will engulf them and suddenly buffeted by the same winds as ordinary mortals, no longer shielded by their divine status. We see a physical crack appear in the wall of the palace which only widens as the time draws near, and although Berenger may not be physically cast out as Lear is, in the same way the world starts to recede from him as we hear that the cessation of his reign has driven people from the land, an empty kingdom with a dying King as dispossessed and purposeless as the wandering Lear. And like his Shakespearian counterpart, this causes Berenger to enter a kind of madness, no longer himself as he grapples for the first time not just with his own humanity but the imminent termination of it, as initial denial gives ways to resignation and despair.
Marber has taken quite an interesting approach that retains some of the extremes of behaviour and occasionally the daffy moments that earn some laughs, but he weighs it down with a darker overlay of fear and inevitability. It’s absurd yes, but also unsettling so the humour becomes wry and even uncomfortable as a once regal symbol becomes a frightened man begging for more life. Marber manages the pitch fairly well which veers continually from Berenger’s deep exploratory monologues as he tries to make sense of his life and imminent death, to the brusque management of his final hour by Maguerite, desperate to get on with it.
Designer Anthony Ward has set this somewhere between the aesthetic of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts and a slightly heightened mittle-European kingdom, full of medieval allusion, hierarchy and glamour. There is a slight seediness to the visuals which constantly, and deliberately, undercut the regality of the court, everything seems as though it has lived a tad too long with the King himself a vision of grubby excess and entitlement, as though his inevitable demise is now long overdue. It purposefully avoids generating any sympathy for the characters, reinforcing Ionesco’s implication that this is a death that needs to happen. And for the most part it is simply staged with a cracked stone backdrop bearing the royal crest and representing the palace with various hidden doors and window panels that allow Marber to vary the location and height of the production.
As King Berenger, Rhys Ifans turns up the volume on the grimy majesty of the King, not to the point of caricature, but enough to create a slightly off-kilter tone. His monarch is almost distasteful to look at, decked in pyjamas with an overly painted face which as the performance unfolds becomes caked and broken by sweat. Ifans shows the swings of mood from angry determination that he still has power to monumental self-pity and depression, raging and cursing against his fate. But he’s never really pitiable, and even as Ifans holds the room in the numerous soliloquies as Berenger tries to sum up his life, achievements and fears, Ifans ensures he remains an interesting but perishing figure, there to represent Ionesco’s theme on life clinging far beyond its natural expiration.
Equally interesting is the role of Queen Marguerite whose blank honest continually intrudes on her former husband’s self-pity, hastening the King’s end with frequentreminders of the ticking clock. Dressed by Ward, Indira Varma presents a stylish and stately figure, a 1960s Princess Margaret meets Elizabeth Taylor cross in a beautifully-tailored black velvet gown. Yet Varma offers a complex and cleverly ambiguous figure whose own motivations in the management of this death are highly questionable. Why is Queen Marguerite so keen to tell Berenger the truth, is it an act of kindness to prepare him for the worst or does she intend to profit from his passing? Varma visible scoffs every time her rival Marie speaks, showing considerable contempt for her younger and more romantic replacement, and although she allows everyone to moan and wail without interruption, she instantly snaps the subject back to the inevitability of the death on their conclusion. She seems wise and sensible, a much needed refresh in the kingdom, but a giveaway line perhaps in the play’s closing moments as Marguerite eventually guides Berenger towards the light, divesting himself of his body and worldly goods, where she instructs him to give the kingdom clutched in his hand to her – part of the ritual of death or a genuine power grab? Varma never let’s you know for sure, which makes the performance all the more intriguing.
Supporting the leads, Amy Morgan’s Marie is a flouncing French princess, all delicacy and devotion to her ailing husband, preferring to remind him of their happy past than prepare him for the future. Adrian Scarborough never lets you down, playing the comic oddity of the Doctor with a side-line in astronomy and Merlin impressions with verve, while Debra Gillett as Juliette the maid and Derek Griffiths as the Guard making the court announcements well utilise their smaller roles as equally peculiar inhabitants of the strange court of King Berenger. Together, they represent the various classes of an almost feudal structure that flows down from the King, through the middle-class professionals to the working classes at the bottom, a microcosm of the wider society. Ionesco’s point is that fawn and then flee as they do in the face of the King’s demise, death is a classless pursuer and it will be their turn soon enough.
Translated by Simon Scarfield, like much absurdist work of its time, Exit the King is less concerned with plot than with exploring themes of human behaviour. Patrick Marber’s engaging production builds on the central strangeness of Ionesco’s work, attempting to break down our ongoing battle with the idea of death and why no one wants to face it until they have to. The characters may turn away leaving Marguerite to conduct Berenger’s final moments, but would she be so composed when her turns comes? The scale of that question is explored in the way Marber, Ward and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone manage the Olivier stage throughout the production, carving its depth in half for much of the action, with a small apron into the audience, only revealing its full extent, grandness and gravity at the point the King eventually exits, making for a notable conclusion.
With a few days before press night, Marber’s production will inevitably sharpen and while Exit the King takes a more linear approach to storytelling than similar work of its era, the plot itself is deliberately secondary to the themes and behaviours presented, which can be both testing and disconcerting. The association with King Lear is an interesting (and timely) one, allowing West End audiences to see both shows in quick succession and appreciate their grand discussions of mortality all the more. Ultimately, they tell us that whoever you are in life and whatever your achievements, the conclusion is the same – we may never be ready or brave enough to face it but, in the persons of Edgar and (hopefully) Maguerite, we can try to leave good behind.
Exit the King is at the National Theatre until 6 October and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1