Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King at the National Theatre introduces us to the bizarre, sublime and ridiculous. After 483 years of existence we are immersed in the last hours of King Berenger’s life and given insight into the story of a king’s life and the acceptance of death.
Watched by his two wives, we are taken through the stages which lead to his acceptance. Along with his doctor and servant we witness his initial stages of dying, including denial, anger and depression. In the final stage of acceptance, it is his first wife who guides him.
For a story so bleak, there are fortunately many laughs to lull us into this story. Patrick Marber’s script is fast paced, with humour successfully hidden in the darkness, leaving the audience at times a few seconds behind. Within Anthony Ward’s decaying castle we are consumed within the throne room, falling into the ruined kingdom as it death parallels the king’s.
In King Berenger, Rhys Ifans has created a compelling character. A tyrannical insanity underpins the character, flitting between command and fear. Ifans breathes the king physically in a decrepit body, buckling legs unable to cope with the sense of what is upon him. The sense of fear felt in the eyes unable to stay focused as they reached into the audience seeking answers.
Indira Varma’s Marguerite is enthralling. Initially the cold-hearted wife left behind. She commands the regal nature of the queen, seemingly lost of the preferred second wife, Amy Morgan’s Queen Marie. There is a humour created between the two, between sniping and goading. But as the laughter fades and the other players are dismissed, so we see Marguerite’s contrasting emotion. In guiding King Berenger to his death, Varma allows the emotion and empathy of Marguerite to be conveyed.
Alongside the strength of the characters created by Varma and Ifans, the final moments allow Anthony Ward’s design to raise the bar. And in doing so brings a finale which neatly captures the whole play.
Exit the King at the National Theatre until 6th October 2018.