Lackeys scurry about the stage like worker ants, their overcoats grey with dust. Something is wrong. The entrance to the Palace has been ruptured by a large fissure, with its immense coat of arms split in two. A bird hides behind a shield, spreading every feather in its possession. This emblem stretches across a vast structure, a wall with many doors, invisible windows and cupboards concealed by stone. White sheets are sullied with dirt and wrinkled at every corner, stretched like tents to cover a trio of thrones. It is both magnificent and makeshift.
Today, the sun has refused to rise, despite the demands of King Bérenger I (played by Rhys Ifans). At over 400 years old, His Majesty has an uncanny ability to control nature and command the bodies of others. Every border has been invaded, and only a geriatric population remains – young blood is useless, and the youth have been disposed of accordingly. The very universe is imploding, with frightening changes in climate connecting the world of the play to the world as we know it. It can only mean one thing: The King is dying.
Dripping in black velvet, Queen Marguerite (played by Indira Varma) is a picture of pragmatism. Her former husband, his royal Despot, might call her a cynic. However, he is in Denial, Phase One of death, and so his word cannot be trusted. “You are going to die at the end of the play” she declares. The fourth wall is dispelled at once. We are all that is left of the state. Still, the King refuses to confront his procrastination on the subject of his exodus, and begins to wilt in his blue silk pyjamas.
Written by Eugène Ionesco, Exit the King is the third production in his ‘Bérenger Cycle’. It reads as an absurd lesson on mortality – a metatheatrical meditation that Patrick Marber’s adaptation closely ties to our current socio-political environment. It is deeply comical, with Depression, a later phase of death, forcing the King into the mannerisms of an overgrown baby. Still, Marber did well to not labour the similarities between Ionesco’s monarch and a certain President of the United States: the echoes charged Ifans’ performance with a revealing sort of humour.
Ifans is a master storyteller, and his inward-facing sermons are compelling. Armageddon is encroaching on the nation, fast. As his delirium sets in, sputum flies through the air and Juliette (played by Debra Gillett) straps him into a wheelchair. His monologues grow longer in anticipation of The End, and these are broken up by artfully choreographed transitions. There is a ceremony that must be completed in order for King Bérenger to pass on, but this practiced narcissist knows how to delay the inevitable.
The fractured kingdom continues to break, and Anthony Ward’s design disappears. Characters vanish until only the King is left to confront the nature of his demise, leaving a great emptiness that yawns beneath his feet. However, as he fades into red, it is impossible to ignore the relationship between the vivid colours used throughout the performance and the dull pace at which the production runs. The stage is bright, but appears strangely muted – like a fire dampened just before it can become a blaze.
Exit the King is on at the National Theatre until 6th October. More info here.