“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness… it is the most comical thing in the world.” – Nell, Endgame
Eugene Ionesco was a master of tragicomedy. Where many modern playwrights clumsily alternate between funny and sad, Ionesco’s greatest talent was forcing the two to sit uncomfortably close together, within the same breath. This discomfort sits at the heart of Absurdism: life’s meaninglessness is simultaneously funny and sad. Patrick Maber grips tightly to this philosophy in his new adaptation of Exit The King, Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist classic. Perhaps due to years of sub-par Beckett revivals, Absurdism has established a reputation as being either boring or depressing or both, so it is the mark of a good revival that it makes the audience laugh. And laugh we do.
Rhys Ifans stars as the aged King Berenger: half king, half clown. He’s wonderfully watchable, committing fully to the slapstick and melodrama with rarely a missed beat. As he slowly dies (an event, we are told, that will happen “at the end of the play”) he is transformed: stiller, more inward focussed, literally bound to a wheelchair. And as he dies, so too dies his kingdom, the huge cracked wall crumbling and disintegrating in front of our eyes. The performance peaks as he tells his court of the cat he adopted when younger: “we called him the Jew”. We are neither to love nor hate Berenger, simply appreciate the sadness and supreme ridiculousness of his passing.
Ifans is more than capably surrounded by his court: Adrian Scarborough makes a beautifully dramatic doctor/astrologer/obituarist; Amy Morgan dives into the role of his vampish, desperate 2nd wife and pulls it off entirely, barring an unnecessarily cartoonish French accent; Derek Griffiths is particularly amusing as the seemingly brainless guard. Most of all, however, Debra Gillett takes the seemingly background role of Juliette, palace housekeeper, and makes it the core comic performance, the caring, nonsensical Fool to Ifans’ Lear. Together they are an excellent ensemble, almost filling the massive Olivier, always playing off each other to direct attention and maintain pacing.
The final piece of the court jigsaw is Berenger’s first wife, the sardonic Marguerite, subtly and powerfully played by Indira Varma. Amidst the exaggerated insanity of the other characters, she is grounded, matter-of-fact, and cuttingly honest. Although her relationship with the king is understandably strained, she alone seems to harbour genuine care for him; not affection, but a tough love that guides him to an easier passing. She guides the audience too, narrating to us in a series of asides. “He still thinks he’s important!” she smiles, “He thinks he’s the first person to die.” We are reminded that we all have kingdoms, and that they are all slowly crumbling with time.
Still, like it’s titular character, the play can occasionally find itself sputtering for life despite the spate of excellent performances. After the novel absurdity of the opening has worn off, the mid-section of the play begins to drag, and the humour, leant on like a crutch at points, does begin to grate. The writing is as much to blame as the direction: after rushing sporadically through the first four stages of grief at his own incoming demise, Berenger languishes around the fifth, treading and re-treading the same ground with slight monotony.
This does little to demerit what is otherwise a sublime production, highly recommended to those with a taste for the absurd. Marber deftly mixes clowning and comedy with a touching and delicate examination of mortality and grief, threading them close enough together to create one of the year’s truest tragicomedies.
Exit the King is running at the National Theatre until the 6th October
Image: National Theatre, Simon Annand