Theatre Review: Exit the King - Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath
This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
King Berenger I has lived for over 400 years, yet still he’s not ready to die. He’s been too busy inventing the tractor, mastering nuclear fusion and attending an endless round of charity balls with his glamorous young second wife, Queen Marie. Now it all boils down to the last hour and a half of his life, which we in the audience are there to witness in real time, whether he likes it or not.
Eugène Ionesco wrote Exit the King in 1962 after a frightening bout of illness, and it shows. Berenger features as an everyman in several of Ionesco’s other Absurdist plays; here he’s the centre of a surreal universe, in the process of collapsing in tandem with his own demise. He’s monarch of a land now rocked by earthquakes, where the sun is late to rise and the wars he worked so hard to win have suddenly all been lost.
Alun Armstrong plays Berenger as a king denying the abyss, ill-prepared for anything except the eternal continuance of his realm. Tottering around his central throne on Anna Fleischle’s cracked and tremor-ridden set, his is a forensic depiction of a verbose and heart-wringing decline. He unpeels the layers of Berenger’s ill-maintained longevity with a staggering, sweating physical deterioration and an increasingly feeble mental resistance, while nevertheless clinging determinedly to the precipice of life.
Armstrong is ably supported by a very strong cast; as Berenger inevitably weakens, it’s down to his imperious and battle-hardened first wife, Queen Marguerite, in a superbly nuanced portrayal by Siobhan Redmond, to help him face reality. Berating him for his lack of preparation, she also dampens down Beth Park’s solipsistic Queen Marie with an ‘Oh, please God, don’t start hoping again!’ She and the Doctor (William Gaunt) chillingly count down the minutes to Berenger’s death, refusing to be distracted by the frequent proclamations of the decrepit Guard (Roy Sampson) and whirlwind interventions of Marty Cruickshank’s much put-upon maid, Juliette.
This new translation from the French by Jeremy Sams has pared Ionesco’s work back to a running time of less than two hours, yet has found room to enhance its feeling of timelessness with references to central heating and pole dancing. And the dialogue still sparkles; as Queen Marguerite accuses Berenger of flirting with death a thousand times, he replies, ‘I only flirted with her, she was never really my type!’
Under Laurence Boswell’s direction, there are no false sympathies for King Berenger. The characters and trappings he has surrounded himself with are gradually stripped away, as he edges towards the central fear that we all must die alone. Veering from the bleakly comedic to highly farcical and ultimately tragic, Ionesco confronts not only his own mortality, but also all of ours. Not always the easiest or most comfortable of plays to watch, Exit the King is a philosophically questioning and fitting finale to a truly outstanding season at the Ustinov.
Runs until 20th December 2014. Photo by Simon Annand. Details and booking here.