You just can’t escape Donald Trump or Brexit, can you? Even things that aren’t about them now seem to be about them. Eugene Ionescu’s challenging 1962 play, featuring his recurring avatar character Berenger, was apparently written to express his mystification with the world and his fear of mortality. But in Patrick Marber’s hard-going new version, resistance to the Trump-y, Brexit-y parallels is futile. A mad king in denial about his own weakness and shortcomings? Check. A once-influential country shrunken and impoverished? Check. A ruling class squabbling amongst itself rather than sorting anything out? Check, check, check.
Anyway, apart from feeling slapped about the face yet again by 2016’s two great acts of self-harm by nation states, Exit the King makes for a difficult evening. Berenger is a yammering baby, a monster of self-pity and autocratic spite. Although he’s given a charismatic, clownish energy by a white-faced Rhys Ifans, he is an enervating presence for the audience and his fellow characters. The senior of his two queens, Marguerite, played with brisk hauteur by Indira Varma, tells us Berenger will die “at the end of the play” and provides regular time-checks on the countdown to the denouement. After a while, you wish she’d hurry up.
Berenger’s second queen, Marie, is an oddly unsexy sex object with a comic French accent. There’s a rancid, twittering old servant (Debra Gillet), a pompous doctor (Adrian Scarborough) and a pantomime soldier (Derek Griffiths). I admire all these actors and am a fan of Marber as both writer and director, but here you respect them all for slogging through it, rather then enjoying their work.
The costumes smell of the dressing-up box. Anthony Ward’s monolithic set of a crumbling castle fills up the Olivier’s height, but leaves the cast strung out along the forestage, or meandering meaninglessly up and back on the red-carpeted catwalk stretching into the audience. There’s none of the quirky charm or subtlety here that made the Royal Court’s 2007 staging of Rhinoceros (which features a younger, non-royal Berenger) and the 2008 Chichester production of Six Characters in Search of an Author so engrossing.
Near the end, the production does gain depth and clarity. As Berenger regresses and reaches some sort of resolution, Ifans exudes a tragic intensity that reminded me of Kenneth Cranham’s heartbreaking final scene in Florian Zeller’s The Father. But this is followed by a laboured sequence where Marguerite symbolically divests him of life’s burdens, the set flies up, and Berenger goes on an endless walk down the red carpet, now stretching back to oblivion. The National Theatre has never staged an Ionescu play before. I kind of wish they hadn’t staged this one.
In rep to January 2019, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.