Undeniably challenging but ultimately thought-provoking and impeccably designed, Exit the King plays at the National Theatre this summer
“You are going to die at the end of the play”
There’s something intriguing about the fact that Eugène Ionesco has never been programmed at the National Theatre before, perhaps a long-present euroscepticism guarding against a writer at the vanguard of the French avant garde scene (give how much Beckett gets staged, it’s clearly not anti-absurdism). But Rufus Norris has looked to rectify this by commissioning a new version of Le Roi se meurt from Patrick Marber, who also directs here.
And as an absurdist drama, Exit the King suggests a bit of different thinking. On the face of it, it’s a simple enough tale – a man is told he only has a day left to live and struggles to deal with it. But that man is a king – King Bérenger – and he’s over 400 years old. And his kingdom is dying around him, with him, stone walls cracking and crumbling away, its people disappearing into the ether, the darkness swallowing everything up whole.
Inspired by the playwright’s questioning of his own mortality, what emerges is a striking, sideways examination of death and how none of us – prince or pauper – are ready for it. Bérenger’s long, slow acceptance of his fate, through petulant denial and woebegotten anguish, is given visceral life by Rhys Ifans in a performance of existential clowning that can’t help but be strange, yet still manages to find moments of resonance within as the old order of things is overturned.
Around him, supporting artists of the calibre of Adrian Scarborough and Debra Gillett feel underutilised as royal functionaries, as does Amy Morgan’s simpering second wife. It is Indira Varma’s OG Queen Marguerite who stands out most, flintish but fair, her final monologue that ends the play is a sonorous delight. And nothing becomes Exit the King more than its final tableau, a masterclass in less is more from designer Anthony Ward, a vision in poignant elegance as the void swallows us all.