Exit the King

For those who pertain to be students of the Theatre of the Absurd movement prevalent in the 1950s and 60s, there is nothing of value to you in this review. Reading further would simply be a pointless waste of your time. Though as the main focus of the movement is inevitable pointlessness – of life, death, and the 100 minutes that this particular night at the National Theatre has to offer – I am aware my advice may actually heighten their interest. Such a delightful irony if they find my words as insufferable as I found those of their respected Eugene Ionesco.

Dated, unnecessary, best to be avoided pretension.

Those who know and love this clique-like introspective style will be as excited as a lack of care allows them to be, by the news that one of the playwright’s pieces that isn’t Rhinoceros is having its debut at the National Theatre - only 56 years after being written and 55 since its last professional London staging (1963, Royal Court, Alec Guinness in the role of King). Reason enough to award 5 stars to Patrick Marber’s paceless direction. Five stars to Rhys Ifans’ failed attempts to add a third dimension to King Berenger. And five stars apiece to the largely unengaged individual performances given, in place if any idea of an ensemble.

And these awards may well be right.

I should state I have no knowledge of this style of theatre other than it meaning something really really clever. And that you have to be really really clever to get it. So as a Virgin of the Absurd (in so many ways), I possibly have no right to give an opinion on it. If this were playing at this year's 'Festival of Really Really Clever Theatre and Stuff that Will Bore the Trousers off Many’ then I may agree and pass my invitation to this made-up dreary Festival to one more intelligent than me.

But this is our National Theatre where anyone disappointed to not get a ticket for the now sold out deliciousness of The Lehman Trilogy downstairs may take a punt at the offer of the plenty tickets here. So it's unashamedly those eyes that I cast upon this and the positive is that I have found the answer to a previously raised assertion that "there are worse ways to spend 100 minutes this summer”.

For the majority of the real time that unfolds, we are in what may well be the last room standing in both the castle and the kingdom of 483 year old King Berenger. Not even a fourth wall remains as Derek Griffiths’ Guard introduces us to each player with all the passion and depth one would expect from a first time reader of autocue.

The two Queens arrive, extreme in their opposing styles as to demonstrate the need for both heart and head in life. Indira Varma’s Queen Marguerite is all long black dress, high black hair, higher upturned nose and maintains a haughty disdain throughout for some unknown reason, whilst attempting a poetic delivery to her words that have no poetry to play with.

On the other side of the unsubtly shoed foot, Amy Morgan is either tearlessly crying, heartlessly giggling or drippingly gushing at the King as the younger Queen Marie so we know she is the one he fucks. And to add extra weight to her representation of love, she wraps it all in an oddly bad French accent that seems to have been learned from a five minute listen to 'Allo 'Allo. The overall effect recalls best buried memories of the ‘babes’ from The Benny Hill Show, given a couple of speaking lines and a tighter T-shirt as pretence of being a character rather than the butt of what we now call appalling sexism.

Completing the rather scant Court of the King are Adrian Scarborough’s Doctor cum Astronomer – who seems at home with a double entendre, hidden meaning and a possible back story that never goes anywhere. And Nurse / Lady in Waiting / Cleaner, Juliette – who Debra Gillett just has a ball with, face adorned with zombie white panstick, she never misses a chance for a pratfall in this Mrs Overall homage.

Together they set out make the King accept his time to die is coming in 68 minutes. Then 58 minutes. 30 – it’s like watching the ticking hands of a clock that seem to go slower and slower with every tock. He doesn’t want to. Then he accepts his fate. Then changes his mind. Then… well anyway he eventually dies. All too slowly. Over a seemingly endless dirge delivered with waving arms aplenty by Queen Margeurite whose end of every sentence I wanted to punctuate with applause in vain hope it was the final word.

And that is it. That’s the point. A quick glance at Wiki shows this seems a fair representation of the Theatre of the Absurd’s focus on the pointless inevitability of our empty lives and deaths. To that end, it may make a great subject for the final paper for the Engish Lit BA student and be the stuff of wet dreams for those who believe theatre to be better the more exclusive a club it remains.

I accept the sneers of these people for my lack of understanding or appreciation for the form but I care little. For everyone else, the only absurdity here is if you still wish to waste your money and time watching what should be best left locked in a library. On a 2018 stage it is simply dated, unnecessary, best to be avoided pretension.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Lyttelton Theatre

I'm Not Running

The Harold Pinter Theatre

The Lover / The Collection

Olivier Theatre

Antony & Cleopatra

Dorfman Theatre

The Prisoner

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling




The Blurb

Somewhere in Europe the kingdom is disintegrating. It’s the last day of King Bérenger’s life. Queen Marguerite is preparing for the end and Queen Marie is in denial. The King is 400 years old and dying, but he’s clinging on for dear life

This great tragi-comedy is brought to life on the Olivier stage this summer, the first time Eugène Ionesco’s work has been performed at the National Theatre.

Patrick Marber (Three Days in the Country, Hedda Gabler) directs his new version of Exit the King with Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, A Christmas Carol) in the title role and Indira Varma (Game of Thrones, Man and Superman) as his first Queen.