Writer: Eugène Ionesco, in a new version by Patrick Marber
Director: Patrick Marber
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
I suppose it is a reflection of our times that, when faced with a play about a country which has been diminishing on the world stage and is facing its own self-inflicted destruction, one’s mind wanders to Britain’s own current problems. But although director and playwright Patrick Marber has created a fresh version of Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King, it is far from being an adaptation that speaks exclusively, if at all, to a 2018 audience.
King Bérenger, who has ruled for nearly 400 years, is dying. His courtiers, including his ex-wife and her younger replacement, a nursemaid, a guard and a doctor, are aware both that he will die by the end of the play, and that indeed they are part of a play itself. But as the king starts to fade away, so goes his kingdom: ill-advised wars have shrunk its borders to nothing, geological disasters have wiped away much of the rest and even the throne room is beginning to disintegrate.
And for most of the first half of Marber’s adaptation, which plays for 90 minutes without interval, it is Anthony Ward’s set design which most inspires. A giant stone wall with a massive crack running through the centre stands behind three thrones at the front of the Olivier’s massive stage, utilising the space’s height but ignoring its depth.
And a lack of depth plagues the characters in the first half, too. After being introduced to the audience one by one by Derek Griffiths’s Guard, the courtiers’ characterisation are as broad as their delivery, less absurdist and more absurd pantomime. Debra Gillett’s comedic physicality and Adrian Scarborough’s trademark officiousness, while both played expertly, seem to lack that spark of humanity that could lift their character out of caricature.
Such straightforward work does at least Indira Varma’s sardonic Queen Marguerite to shine in their presence, though. Her dismissive attitude towards Amy Morgan’s Marie, her jejune replacement, and her forthright and practical stance against the downfall of bother her ex-husband and his kingdom breathe life into a rather emotionless first hour.
It takes a while for Rhys Ifans, as Bérenger, to bring himself up to her level. His King, initially refusing to believe that he is dying, then working his way through a pre-death version of the seven stages of grief, takes the duration of the play to move from the pantomimic delivery of his courtiers to the heightened reality of Varma’s portrayal.
But when he gets there, as the now-blind Bérenger stops obsessing about his legacy and accepts his fate, Ifans and Varma come to dominate the Olivier’s cavernous space, even as Ward’s set reveals just why it belongs in this space rather than the proscenium of the Lyttelton. Combined with Hugh Vanstone’s evocative lighting, the final 20 minutes of Exit the King are a visual treat.
This may not be a play about Brexit, but Marber seems keen to emphasise that there are penal parallels that are ever contemporary: that when we die, any imprint we leave behind on the world may be large or small, but is ultimately out of our hands. But despite Marber’s best efforts, one fears Exit the King’s legacy will be the set on which an otherwise anodyne adaptation plays out.
Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Simon Annand