Review – Exit the King, National Theatre

Tuesday 24 July 2018

“Stop this infernal pantomime!” shouts one of the Queens in Patrick Marber‘s version of Eugène Ionesco‘s Exit the King.

How many of us in this preview audience must have been thinking exactly the same? Yes, we’re nailing our colours to the mast straight away and saying what a dreadfully dreary evening this is. Even if it’s only 1 hour 40 minutes it feels much, much longer. Still, you can pass the time glancing round the audience and seeing if those on the ends of rows are slipping out discretely. Yes, some did. Lucky bastards.

Rhys Ifans plays King Berenger whose kingdom is disintegrating around him. He’s four hundred years old and, unsurprisingly is dying. If only he could have just another hundred years he pleads. Try watching this play Rhys, that’ll feel like you’ve had another century.

The main conflict – if one can flatter it that there is any conflict –  is that he is struggling to come to terms with his imminent death. There are two Queens (Indira Varma and Amy Morgan), his doctor, a guard (Derek Griffiths, yes Play School Derek Griffiths!) and a maid (Debra Gillet) to help him prepare for the end.

The characters tell the audience he will die at the end of the play and frequently remind us how many minutes it is until that moment. Which provides us with a sort of countdown until the relief of it all being over, and like having a live clock on the stage, means we don’t need to look at our watches. Though of course this didn’t stop Phil, nor the woman next to him and one wonders how many others.

Characters stick their heads out of hidden windows (very Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) in Anthony Ward’s solidly crumbling set. Adrian Scarborough‘s Doctor brandishes a large syringe which squirts water over the audience, that’s when he’s not trundling a large telescope around on a trolley. This he cranks out to full extension and peers through presumably looking to see if there’s a better role for him out there. Goodness, if Scarborough can’t do much with his part there really is no saving things is there? Gillett is the wife of Marber (who also directs), she fusses around with brooms and feather dusters but must be wondering if nepotism is all it’s cracked up to be.

Ifans injects a whiff of life into the proceedings by gurning around in blue silk pyjamas when he’s not sticking his head through a giant tablecloth. When he first enters (through the auditorium) the audience is encouraged to rise. Bizarrely most of the audience complied. Phil remained seated rather grumpily of course. Ifans seems to be channelling Prince Philip when he’s not channelling the actor Julian Bleach. He frequently sports a totally convincing dead-behind-the-eyes look. Presumably by channelling the audience.

It probably says something existential and profound about death and authority though it was impossible to give a hoot. Rather startlingly it’s billed as a tragi-comedy. Strangely some of the audience were laughing. At what? Embarrassment?

The only thing that got Phil through to the end was the set that looked as though it was threatening to do something quite special. When it does – just before the end – it really is rather beautiful and striking.

Our post-show moanings were centred around the cast and at what point they realise they are appearing in a dud. We suspect they are well up to speed on that.

Sensibly it’s played without an interval or surely it might have been a case of Exit the Audience.

If you have tickets already then you also have our sympathies.



13 Responses to “Review – Exit the King, National Theatre”

  1. Kevin Probert-Briggs Says:

    What a brilliant & hysterical review and if I did have tickets I’d give them to Piers Morgan cause I can’t stand him 😉

  2. DramaMean Says:

    I saw Exit the King (in a different adaptation) in New York a few years ago, starring Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon and Lauren Ambrose – and it was a terrific piece of theatre (funny and engaging, largely because of a phenomenal performance from Geoffrey Rush.) Rather dreading the NT production now.

  3. Michael Sharpe Says:

    It was even a flop 50 years ago when it was staged at the Royal Court and starred Alec Guiness and Googie Withers.

  4. CWA Says:

    I thought Rhys Ifans was incredible and I found the last 15 minutes as he’s encouraged by the Queen played by Indira Verma to let go and die incredibly moving. I loved the design and that ending was beautifully done with the set disappearing and red lighting creating a path for the King to his death. Having recently lost a family member maybe this made me more sympathetic. I’m not pretending it’a great play and perhaps a better director and a more physical cast
    could have done more with the action but I’m glad the NT has staged it. I also didn’t find it too long.
    By the way there are some clips from the G Rush production on You Tube but it doesn’t look as good as the NT production.

    • Ian Sprawson Says:

      Absolutely, and maybe for the same reasons. Maybe I am more of a sucker, but to me the whole thing was about the world and the people in it metaphorically and literally disappearing (for the dying person) as their death approaches, and it worked wonderfully well to that end.

  5. CWA Says:

    Sorry Indira Varma.

  6. Christopher Says:

    At least the National give refunds, albeit a credit voucher. Tickets returned. Worth the £2 admin fee to dodge this bullet!

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