Eugene Ionesco, the French-Romanian titan of post-war drama, acclaimed architect of such avant-garde classics as The Killer, The Chairs and Rhinoceros, only receiving his first National Theatre production in 2018, over two decades since his death in 1994? Utterly absurd, as is the play Rufus Norris has chosen to stage: Exit the King, or Le Roi Se Meurt, in the Olivier until September.
Writer, director and actor Patrick Marber takes the reins of his own adaptation, returning to the National after the sell-out success of his version of Hedda Gabler, staged by Ivo Van Hove in 2016. Marber’s on something of a roll: in recent years, he has earned acclaim for his Ibsen adaptation, for his revival of Travesties, and for his play The Red Lion.
For Exit the King, he’s joined by a lead actor also in something of a purple patch. Star of stage and screen Rhys Ifans returns to the National after playing Scrooge and King Lear’s Fool at the Old Vic. He’s worked with Marber before – he originated the title role in Marber’s play Don Juan in Soho in 2006, a part recently taken on by David Tennant in the West End.
But does Ionesco’s overdue National Theatre debut impress the critics? Does Marber’s adaptation augment the original’s absurdity? Is Ifans up to filling a king-sized pair of shoes?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Exit The King, which premiered in 1962, presents an omnipotent, 400-year-old monarch finally meeting his end. King Berenger knows he is going to die – over the course of the play, the audience watches as he and his kingdom crumble into nothing. So far, so absurd, but how does it work in 2018?
No review raves about it, but some critics believe Ionesco’s play still has something to offer. “This 100-minute piece, dating from the 1960s, is one of his more conventional offerings,” says Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★). “It’s in effect an extended death scene, and in a new version by Patrick Marber packs an unexpected topical punch — as a vision of a society that’s shrivelling, in denial about its unpreparedness and the horrors that await it.”
“Astonishingly to me – who went in sceptical about Ionesco’s ability to deliver more than a quizzical eyebrow over the proscenium arch – Marber’s drama turns out to be humane as well as brainy,” adds Susannah Clapp (Observer, ★★★), while David Lister (Independent, ★★★★) praises Marber for “dialogue so snappy that the audience is often having to catch up.”
Others, though, can hardly stand it. “Ionesco insists that death, for each and every one of us, is the loss of our everything – all our earthly possessions and powers,” says Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage, ★★). “It is a simple point and a profound one, though not one that sustains an hour and a half of overblown verbosity and polite, pantomime clowning that hits the same notes again and again.”
“The initial absurdist politics give way to a meditation on the meaning of death, of letting go, of giving up, of realising it’s not really all about you,” sighs Ann Treneman (Times, ★★). “Some people in the audience were developing their own exit plan, heads bobbing in a way that signalled sleep was nigh.”
It’s “baggy and raggedy and outstays its welcome”, writes Holly Williams (Time Out, ★★★). “The final moments expand into something more existentially magisterial, but there’s a lot of very repetitive squabbling to get to that point that had me wishing he’d shuffle off bit quicker.”
Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) finds the play conceptually flawed. “By seeking to combine a classical form with absurdist senselessness,” he writes, it “promises more than it delivers.” And Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) reckons Marber hasn’t realised its full potential.
“He brings out the play’s layers – one man’s scrabble against the multiple indignities of physical decline and the falling away of an old order – but ironically he struggles to make the play feel alive,” she writes.
“Put bluntly, when the “existentialist” element is to the fore, you feel the cosmic shiver of the human condition,” assesses Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★). “When the evening attempts lower-case absurdist larks, you may be afflicted by shudders of boredom. There’s a lot of embellishment and restatement of the blooming obvious.”
“At its best, Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist drama is a disarmingly frank and sobering account of the fear of death,” concludes Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★). “Its honesty can indeed be searing, but it is packaged in a comic style that now feels laborious, verbose and heavy going.”
Marber’s most successful staging to date is probably his Menier Chocolate Factory production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties in 2016, which earned an Olivier nod for best revival. Can we expect similar accolades for his Ionesco?
Probably not. “Patrick Marber’s production of his own, sinuously witty adaptation plugs into a European fun-house gothic, with jack-in-the-box-style windows in the stone wall of set designer Anthony Ward’s disintegrating castle,” describes Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★). “The concluding segment is visually astonishing, but underlines the heavily gestural quality of both the play and the production. Despite Ifans, this felt like a long evening.”
“Even at one hour and forty minutes straight through it dragged,” agrees Treneman. “I found myself watching Anthony Ward’s blazingly good set more than the “action”. The backdrop is a castle wall that, as the kingdom disintegrates, itself develops a crack that indicates the kind of subsidence that estate agents dread. It hides a host of magical windows and doors, not to mention a trumpeter.”
“Watching this absurdist classic half a century on is simply death – one of those purgatorial nights at the theatre that makes you long for the light at the end of the tunnel,” writes Trueman. “The National’s bars should start stocking barbiturates on tap. They’d make a killing.”
It’s not all bad news. As above, Anthony Ward’s set is widely praised – it’s “monumental” according to Tripney, and “sensational” according to Rachel Halliburton (Arts Desk, ★★★). The concluding coup de theatre – no spoilers – is also raved about in most reviews.
And not all critics were bored to tears. “Even if the play’s destination is vague, Marber’s production ensures the journey itself has variety,” says Billington. “It is vivaciously performed and full of regal ritual.”
“A blend of pantomime and angst-ridden darkness, it’s commendably bonkers yet also overblown and uneven,” concludes Hitchings.
Rhys Ifans is probably still best known for his comic supporting role in Notting Hill – “nice, firm buttocks” – but he’s a stage actor of considerable pedigree, too, particularly in recent years. How well does he rage against the dying of the light in a role previously taken on by Michel Bouquet, Sir Alec Guinness and Geoffrey Rush?
“Rock-star skinny, he’s like a vampiric Peter Stringfellow mixed with Lear and his fool, all white face paint, bleeding mouth and midnight-blue satin pyjamas,” writes Allfree. “It’s a monumental performance: at once camp, pitiful and monstrous.”
“Ifans has exactly the right air of tyrannical authority tinged with terror,” says Billington. “The play’s dynamism derives from Berenger’s shifting moods, which Ifans captures perfectly in a performance that makes me long to see him in the big Shakespeare roles.”
“Ifans’ decline is compelling to watch,” concurs Tripney. “The precision of his increasing feebleness is coupled with a growing sense of terror, over what he has lost and what he has yet to lose, the deterioration of self, the slow bodily unravelling, the prospect of no longer being. First he rails against the inevitable, then he wails, then he capitulates.”
He’s “tremendous and weirdly magnetic” according to Hemming and “a marvel” according to Williams, while for Lister, it’s a turn that’s “little short of a tour de force”.
“Ifans owns the stage, by turns Lear-like, sonorous and haunted, then demonic and daft, then ever so slightly camp,” Lister continues. “It’s a mesmerising performance, with the pain of his difficulty in accepting finality only ever slightly below the surface.”
Mostly three-star reviews mean Exit The King is far from a hit, but it’s far from a flop too. For some critics, the play’s the problem: it has aged poorly, still eloquent about mortality, but now more likely to provoke groans than gasps of outrage.
For others it’s the production: despite a stunning set from Anthony Ward, Marber’s revival struggles to marshal the magic of the Olivier, and his staging drags. Ifans is good, though – really good, according to some reviews.
In the end, Marber has to settle for mediocrity. He won’t like it, but he’ll have to go along with it.