Exit The King by Patrick Marber – ‘Shamelessly silly’

★★★

7/10

exit the kingMarber’s adaptation of Ionesco’s absurdist exploration of the inevitable curse of mortality is, textually, an entertaining and generally delightful ride, with an affecting albeit slightly confusing conclusion. The cast’s performances are full of energy, composure and individuality, and the play’s design elements shine brightly throughout, but one of the most admirable aspects is that of Marber’s interrogation of the original text to create an adaptation that takes into account Ionesco’s own life experiences but still breathes new life into the piece, with dashes of its original surrealism and satire alongside hints of commedia dell’arte, slapstick and a sometimes near total absence of a fourth wall.

It seems an interesting choice of text for Marber to pursue at this point in time; it doesn’t shine too much explicit relevancy to socio-political aspects of our current era, at my first, possibly foolish, glance (bar its exaggerated depiction of a kingdom and its people crumbling seemingly beyond repair) but perhaps that’s because it is, by nature, somewhat timeless – no matter what point in history you look at, as stupid as it may sound, people still experience death. We have the same worries, gripes and fears as we always have done, we think of the uncertainty, the beyond, the what ifs, the why nots – we are all guilty of indulging these trains of thought at countless points in our lives, and for that reason, watching King Bérenger’s demise presents an oddly unsettling question: whilst we laugh or despair at his overblown, selfish, confused and often deranged attitude to his inevitable passing, won’t we all feel just the same once we get to our own individual ends, too?

A few certain cast members provide really admirable performances in an absurdist, farcical world that is difficult to portray at the best of times, particularly Derek Griffiths as The King’s ever-attentive and respectful Guard, often proclaiming pointless headlines on his demise to the rest of the kingdom at regular intervals throughout the one act performance (pun intended), and Indira Varma, who portrays a stunningly composed and stern Queen Marguerite. Adrian Scarborough plays an incredibly engaging and wholly likeable King’s Physician – a breath of fresh air in a play full of quite unlikeable or over-exaggerated characters, and Rhys Ifans plays the title role with a fantastic and highly impressive tensity, but Marber’s inconsistent direction appears to have ignored the fact that this leading role exhibits much the same character throughout, instead of developing more maniacally as would seem natural as he gets closer and closer to death. It seems that more time could have been taken examining the individual score of the character to see how his madness could ensue whilst we watch him reach his end, and how his general manner could become more tense and dishevelled as he regresses. Instead, however, in many ways, we see a greatly similar King leave the stage for the final time that we did when he first burst onto it: arrogant, frail and loudly unlikeable. It appears a missed opportunity overall, though Ifans without a doubt does the best that he can with such a role, and channels an incredible amount of energy into his character, both physically and vocally, even when in his most quiet, near vegetative, moments.

The use of live trumpet adds a pleasant extra dimension to the piece but also seems slightly isolated and underused – the awkward final bow of the solo musician almost seemed comical due to her sheer under-use in the piece. Perhaps greater attention to live musical elements could have been paid if this was an area Marber wished to pursue – or, indeed, it could have been questioned as to whether this was required at all. Another directorial (and jointly script-based) problem arises from the comedy in the piece, which, whilst at many points is classically farcical, appears at times far too obvious or crude for a play with such unusual and dark undertones. Many jokes do hit the mark though, and both Ionesco and Marber’s love of the bizarre shines through beautifully. Anthony Ward’s stage design is also wonderful, with its immense broken palace wall and regal red carpet thrust.

Further problems however arise from the show’s inability to remain sure of its tonality, as mentioned earlier, and indeed the qualities of its characters; whilst the onstage execution of the final scene was astounding, what seemed like a complete change in character from Queen Marguerite occurred, as she exhibited a manner which seemed profoundly different to that which she had shown for much of the preceding ninety-five minutes. The piece is also littered with excessive monologues, that whilst being beautifully composed frequently drag and rarely seem to deliver the meaningful conclusions they appear to grapple for (bar one particular passage in which the King talks, in painstaking detail, of the slow, gory death of his former pet cat). Whilst these may exhibit such length through fear of diverting too far from Ionesco’s original words, perhaps an edit to the entire script could have made the piece feel far more cohesive and concise, and perhaps even, comedically, a little rushed.

All in all Exit The King feels like a decidedly mixed bag; more leaning without a doubt towards positive attributes, being an often hilarious, consistently engaging and never dull show, but showing notable inconsistencies which drag it down from being quite as good as it could potentially be. I am unsure as to whether we will see this script re-surface on a mainstream level again for some time, but if the National is to bring back this particular production I hope that some time is taken to refine and polish its delicate, shamelessly silly world, and that its passage and characters can therefore shine more pristinely. But what remains undeniable is that Marber has breathed beautiful new life into this text which has so much to say and poke great fun at, and I for one am incredibly grateful to him for bringing it to the fore once again.

‘Exit The King’ played on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre, London, from the 17th July until the 6th of October 2018.

-Toby Moran Mylett

 

 

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