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For its first foray into the world of Eugène Ionesco, the National has chosen a play about a departure: to be more precise, the death of a king. While Patrick Marber’s production of his own version shows there are more laughs than you might expect and gets a compelling performance from Rhys Ifans, I found my interest waned over the course of 90 minutes and I have been trying to work out why.
The situation initially excites our attention. We are in the throne room of a ruined kingdom suffering, as Marber’s text makes chillingly clear, the effects of climate change: the clouds rain toads, the earth is quaking. If the country is dying, so too is its 483-year-old king, Bérenger.
Watched by his first and second wives, his doctor and a servant, he goes through the various stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression before reaching acceptance of the inevitable. At last, guided by his first wife, Marguerite, he fades into oblivion.
Much of the fascination lies in the performance of Bérenger: a role that has attracted actors as various as Michel Bouquet, Sir Alec Guinness and Geoffrey Rush. Now it is the turn of Ifans and, with his lanky frame, his incisive tenor bark and his Plantagenet wig, he suggested nothing so much as Peter O’Toole essaying Richard III.
Ifans has exactly the right air of tyrannical authority tinged with terror. Yet he also moves one when his legs suddenly buckle beneath him or when his eyes roam the auditorium seeking sympathy as he cries: “I’m about to die.” The play’s dynamism derives from Bérenger’s shifting moods, which Ifans captures perfectly in a performance that makes me long to see him in the big Shakespeare roles.
If, by the end, I was getting restless, the fault lies with Ionesco. Martin Esslin, the leading authority on theatre of the absurd, rightly said his play was a modern equivalent of the 15th-century morality play, Everyman. In both works, the hero is told at the outset he is going to die and the drama lies in how he will react.
There is, however, a crucial difference. Everyman, who finally says: “I must be gone to make my reckoning” learns that good deeds offer the only path to salvation. Bérenger, in contrast, simply disappears into a misty vacancy and is told by Marguerite, in the original: “It was a lot of fuss about nothing, wasn’t it?” She may be referring to life itself or the process of dying, but either way you don’t feel, as you do in Everyman, that something vital is at stake.
Even if the play’s destination is vague, Marber’s production ensures the journey itself has variety. It is vivaciously performed and full of regal ritual. Indira Varma lends Marguerite an icy grandeur, Adrian Scarborough makes the doctor a pompous scuttler, and Debra Gillett as the careworn servant and Derek Griffiths as a ceremonial guard lend substance to minor roles.
My only doubt concerned the pointless French accent adopted by Amy Morgan as Bérenger’s second wife. But, with a design by Anthony Ward that memorably fractures, there is nothing wrong with the presentation: it is the play itself that, by seeking to combine a classical form with absurdist senselessness, promises more than it delivers.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Exit the King review – Rhys Ifans’s dying despot is majestic | Stage