Many years ago, during my time at University in South Africa, I appeared in a student production of Eugène Ionesco’s first play, The Bald Soprano. Neither I nor the rest of the cast had the foggiest idea what this baffling one-act play was about or what it was trying to say. But it really didn’t matter. We had a blast with all the non-sequiturs and the surrealism, unaware that what we were appearing in was the start of a theatrical revolution that came to be known as The Theatre of the Absurd. Though it was written in 1950, it can still be seen in Paris (coupled with Ionesco’s The Lesson,) making it the longest-running continuous production of all time.
Twelve years later, Ionesco, convinced that the chronic liver disease that was compromising his health would also rob him of his life (it didn’t; he died 32 years later), decided to write a play that would, in the process, teach him how to face death and at the same time reveal some of the darker recesses of the human condition. He called it Exit the King, and it was hailed by the critic of France-Soir as “one of the greatest plays in modern theatre.”
Something has clearly been lost in translation. As adapted and directed by Patrick Marber with a generous supply of one-liners and more than its share of roisterous pantomime shtick, it initially leavens the gloom and doom that is seeping miasma-like from a kingdom suffering the effects not only of catastrophic climate-change, but of festering decay and dilapidation. The wall of the throne room in which the play is set is cracked down the middle. The citizens have been dying in calamitous circumstances. The kingdom has shrunk to a couple of miles in length. And the king, named Berenger, who numbers among his achievements the creation of the world, is finally expiring at the age of 483.
Watching, even encouraging him to accept the inevitable, is his icy first wife Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma), frozen out of favour by his more accommodating second wife Queen Marie (Amy Morgan donning a seductive French accent), who refuses to find fault in anything he does. Also talking up his death is The Doctor (Adrian Scarborough), an officious, untrustworthy physician who performs operations on himself and whose mission – before he disappears into oblivion, like everyone else – is to prepare the king for his demise by joining forces with Marguerite to remind him just how many minutes he still has to live. (“You will be dead by the end of the play.”)
Derek Griffiths is the palace’s last surviving guard. And as an overworked and under-appreciated all-purpose charlady, Debra Gillett has a few amusing over-the-top slapstick pratfalls.
Everyone is subservient to the titular king, played here by a lanky, etiolated Rhys Ifans, who, as the play lumbers to its nihilistic conclusion, has exchanged his beloved sceptre and crown for a pathetic non-descript woolly cap, his powers slowly morphing into dementia. He passes through a kind of seven ages of man, but it’s heavy going. Shakespeare in just one great speech from As You Like It said everything Ionesco says in 90 minutes, but with more clarity, humanity and poetry.
Ifans indulges in heavy-duty ranting one moment, then subtly rolls his eyes, Olivier-like, when he wishes to change the mood. Cumulatively, it’s a tour de force, an elaborate audition for his King Lear a few years down the line. That said (and it is not his but the play’s fault), I kept checking my watch every time we were told how many more minutes Berenger has to live before shuffling off this mortal coil. Even Anthony Ward’s pantomime set with its pantomime hidden scenery flaps, which got laughs by opening and closing, couldn’t raise my sagging spirits after the first half hour or so. Dying isn’t fun – and neither is Exit the King.