Rhys Ifans follows up his very human Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic with the title role in Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 tragicomedy Le Roi Se Meurt, another play about a man confronted with his mortality.
King Berenger the First has ruled his kingdom for more than 400 years. The young have fled in droves. The climate is changing. His realm is declining faster than his faculties. The end for him is nearing and he faces his last hour on this earth with his discarded first queen at his side, alongside his new wife, his doctor, a loyal guardsman, and his last remaining servant. They worship him and yet long for his demise.
As King Berenger, Rhys Ifans’ King, clad in royal blue pyjamas, a towering crown and Heath Ledger’s Joker make-up, looks like an ambulant Quentin Blake illustration, but his defiant swagger soon falls away. Before long, his hair has turned white and he’s left decrepit, a quivering figure in a wheelchair.
Ifans’ decline is compelling to watch. 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.
Indira Varma’s Queen Marguerite, majestic in black velvet, is steely yet not unfeeling. But Amy Morgan’s Queen Marie has little to do but pout and coo over her King, and Adrian Scarborough feels similarly underused as an attentive yet pragmatic doctor, monitoring the output of his master’s bowels along with the heavens. This is very much Ifans’ show.
Anthony Ward’s monumental set is emblazoned with the emblem of an eagle. It looms over the stage and is echoed throughout the design. As the play progresses, it starts to crack and fracture. The final image in which Ifans embarks on his last journey into the unknown puts the Olivier’s drum revolve to striking use.
While there is a scattering of laughs at the start, Marber’s production suffers from a number of lulls. 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. Aside from Ifans’ Olivier-filling performance and the undeniably potent final image, the production feels a bit creaky and inert.