‘I could feel that there was something incredibly lively and painful and funny in all this,’ director Patrick Marber has said of rediscovering Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 play about a dying king in a collapsing kingdom.
He’s right, and it’s an inspired move to revive the Theatre of the Absurd classic in 2018, when its story of hubris in high places feels so topical it might as well be a Saturday Night Live sketch with the king wearing a Trump wig.
The play puts us at the heart of an unnamed empire, where 400-year-old King Berenger I (Rhys Ifans) is facing his mortality. “If only I could have one more century, I’d be prepared,” he complains.
Over the Olivier stage looms a Ruritanian coat of arms of a black eagle painted on a vast palace wall with a deep, cracking fissure down it, a symbol of the ills afflicting the land. “Our cities are rubble, swimming pools set ablaze,” sighs the queen, in a typically surreal line. “The clouds rain toads,” frets the king’s doctor-cum-astronomer.
They and a few courtiers are gathered to witness the great king’s death, which will occur, they warn him (and us) bluntly, in 68 minutes, “at the end of the play.”
So it’s not a long piece, and don’t expect plot twists – or any plot, for that matter. The characters simply swirl around the same plughole for scene after ludicrous scene, until, at the climax, that giant set delivers a brilliant, slow-motion coup de théâtre you won’t forget in a hurry.
It’s all mesmerisingly daft and as the King, Rhys Ifans is irresistible, declaiming his lines in a glorious Peter O’Toole voice but behaving like a petulant child who refuses to accept his fate. “Go kill the spiders in my bedroom, don’t let them outlive me!” he orders.
He’s part King Lear, part Iggy Pop, a fallen idol in blue satin pyjamas. In one scene he clings to his sceptre while courtiers try to remove it, whining “ My sceptre! My one!” like a spoilt toddler.
“What a sick joke is life!” he moans at another point – more or less the absurdist creed in a nutshell. But the play has more to offer than a great big avant-garde raspberry at the universe. It fires off in all directions. The king’s “grandiose narcissism” (his doctor’s phrase) could be a dig at any number of puffed-up world leaders. There’s an environmental disaster closing in on the palace. You could see the whole thing as a fugue on the folly of the human ego, the kingdom each of us builds that is doomed to collapse sooner or later…
Or you could relish it as simply a very funny play about characters trapped in a slow-motion car-crash, a satirical sketch writ large, with delicious comic turns from Adrian Scarborough as the self-serving doctor and Indira Varma as the scathingly snobbish queen. (Or one of them: there’s an older queen and a younger, and no love lost between them…)
However you read it, Marber has breathed new life into a work that feels like a neglected gem, a crown jewel. Re-enter Exit the King, and long may it reign.
Exit the King is on at The National Theatre until 6th October