FringeReview UK 2018
This version of Ionesco’s Exit the King is both adapted and directed by Patrick Marber. Anthony Ward’s stone-white slightly castellated facade is fissured with a vertical crack. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting effects the cute silliness of turquoise and violet lighting for a fairy-tale opening. Both set and lighting reveal something elemental later. Adam Cork curves the music where needed to farcical pomp and in musician Sarah Campbell’s hands, profundity.
The Absurd traveling so far it scours the sublime. This is the kind of energy some might hope for in Rufus Norris’ tenure at the National: theatricality, risk-taking, the wildness of 1970s productions chill-filtered for our time; something inconceivable outside the theatre. Ionesco’s Exit the King is all these and far more. If Norris is getting into his stride, then it’s small wonder Peter Brook’s due here soon too.
Initially surprising perhaps is that it’s both adapted and directed by Patrick Marber. Then you remember he’s currently refreshing his comedic roots on Radio 4’s Bunk Bed. His version is superbly adroit and communicative in its one hundred and five minutes, veering between wisecracks and the abyss underneath.
Exit the King isn’t Ionesco as often experienced. Prompted by Ionesco’s own illness it took conscious not unconscious shape as ‘an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying’. Not coincidentally perhaps was Everyman staged here in 2015. Dating from 1962, it’s Ionesco’s latest canonic play, where this country sees him mostly produced in drama colleges or fringe events. A recent outing of The Chairs perhaps nudges a revival along.
Exit the King though unlike its predecessors pares down, it doesn’t build up: no chairs, no rhinoseri proliferating, but at the end slow exits and in this production that goes for the set too designed with an eye for the cartoonish majesty wholly true to the play.
The Olivier presents Anthony Ward’s stone-white slightly castellated facade fissured with a vertical crack across a Ruritanian coat of arms. It heralds exterior and interior of the Great Hall; ‘not lounge’ scolds Queen One to the cleaner. It’s where windows pop open, giving on downstage to (initially dust-sheeted) three off-white dais, primed for the ailing King Bérenger ((Rhys Ifans), Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma), Second Queen Amy Morgan’s Marie, all announced with sublime superfluity by Derek Griffiths’ Guard, and fussed about by Debra Gillett’s Juliette the scolded cleaner. The costumes too deserve praise: all icing-cake sublime, out of The Great Race’s Ruritania piped with G&S.
Hugh Vanstone’s lighting effects the cute silliness of turquoise and violet soft-focus for a fairy-tale opening. The end is wholly other, something set and lighting lend to how far we travel. It’s thrilling and has to be seen without descriptive spoilers. Adam Cork curves the music where needed to farcical pomp and suddenly in musician Sarah Campbell’s hands, profundity.
King Bérenger, Adrian Scarborough’s astrologer-quack Doctor announces, is dying. Not only that, the man who commanded nature to obey, who wrote Shakespeare and in his 483 years invented everything from the wheelbarrow to nuclear fission is – as he put it in his scribbling days – ‘to this favour’ come. Quite chop-fallen. Saturn and Mars have collided, Scarborough tells us through his phallically unfeasible telescope on wheels. The Milky Way’s dissolved and Bérenger’s own kingdom has shrunk to five miles square, the population age sixty years in hours and either drown or vanish. The nuclear missile tests have proved embarrassing (as North Korea’s perhaps).
Nothing Bérenger commands now obeys him as he totters, sprawls, crawls to escape his Doctor’s pronouncement. To redeem the time, even the universe, he must die before it vanishes. Perfectly reasonable. Anyway the Doctor’s on hand to write the Obituary, recording any last great words.
Except Bérenger’s in denial, that first of five stages. ‘I should have been warned!’ No matter Elizabeth Kubler’s five stages were seven years off, Marber’s underscoring these structurally works perfectly. Initially icy Varma, long spurned for Morgan’s warm embraces, attempts to choreograph with Scarborough the necessary exit. Varma moves regally cumbered in trip-worthy gowns; and in fact grows as more of her carapace falls away, though never losing an imperious vocal tang. And not before she deliciously puts her King down, as he imagines another breakfast: ‘You won’t be here tomorrow.’ For a while there’s a countdown from sixty-eight minutes.
As Ifans inches towards his curtain, each iteration of those stages is a shedding of some habit more absurd than the play. The vanity of power, ties of habit and even of love; everything seems to reduce to the memory of a cat. He’s been Lear’s Fool to Glenda Jackson at the Old Vic, and Scrooge. It’s all here. And as he tells us of his white friend you could hear a cat moult.
Ifans from his first jerking-on – almost as rickety as Griffiths’ G&S-style Guard with similar gestures – is mesmerising. From lip-curling curses to the crowd he bids sit down (yes the audience rise for the King) he’s a monarch stripping for the end as he divests himself of his long gown, revealing midnight-blue PJs that chime well as the throne’s converted into a kind of working bed where he briefly signs documents.
But it’s his blanched face that holds, dissolving in sweat like a plague-defying clown out of Peter Barnes’ Red Noses. Or Elizabeth 1. Humanity’s the skin beneath the white skull, and it’s this movement from snarl to sob that Ifans projects with splenetic then piteous then sublime perorations that are like nothing I’ve seen. Wounded majesty fast-decaying might be the theme, but Ifans is spell-binding, both vocally and physically.
The great scene arrives when the koochy-feely silliness of Morgan’s Queen Marie, the pratfalling Gillett’s Juliette (morphing though into a suddenly darker nurse) and even Scarborough’s magnificently self-serving Doctor (‘I’m writing a book’) have shuffled off leaving Ifans his mortal coil unravelled by Varma.
To a gradually altered scenery it’s not fair to describe Ifans and Varma engage in a long recessional colloquy. In a stage of acceptance Bérenger projects one last arc of eloquence, realising finally that Margeurite’s his one true friend and counsellor, who can accompany him thus far though not beyond. Varma’s regality stretches even more cubits here. It’s touching and in Brook’s sense holy theatre. Everyman certainly, and in staging and acting like this realising that essence more than the 2015 production.
Perhaps something’s shifted for Marber too. In a heatwave, Exit’s icy touch comes as a timely warning to those who deem themselves the last trump. More importantly, it reminds us of Ionesco’s links – back to Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Pirandello, and forward – in the UK alone – to the Peter Barnes of The Bewitched (1974), with its epileptic King Charles V of Spain lucid only in fits at the centre of a giant spectacle involving a huge golden phallus and climactic Auto-da-Fé. That was the knee-tottering, sprawling Alan Howard and Ifans here inhabits something of that scale. We need this energy, this theatre back. This outstanding production of Exit the King might just remind us how to get it.