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Phil Willmott

Review: EXIT THE KING at The National Theatre

Exit The King - National Theatre Frustrating though it definitely becomes I think this is exactly the kind of play the National Theatre should be producing amidst their recent hit and miss new writing and box-office certs like FOLLIES and AMADEUS.

It’s a very rare revival of a strange masterpiece by one of the twentieth centuries most gifted avant-garde writers. Witty, uncompromising and audacious, if W.B Yates is right and the theatre is a place where the mind goes to be liberated, being exposed to a great if bizarre text in a fearless, stylish production like this can only enhance the way we view life (and in this instance, death)

Perhaps I should start with the background. Playwright Eugene Ionesco was already well regarded for his strange comedies in which the mediocrity and idiosyncrasies of language were married to surreal situations. At thirty he believed he was going to die and began a long period thinking about the horror and absurdities of death, famously making the point that, as we all know we’re going to die, it’s strange how often it takes us by surprise. This play is the result of his meditations (in fact he lived into his 80s).

It’s tough to describe. Imagine a children’s story book about a cantankerous king and a proud spiky queen, in fact there’s two queens, the younger one’s a bit of a floozy - although she’s not as dim as she looks, there’s a gruff solider, a bit like a wind up toy, a funny old hag of a cleaning lady and an eccentric court boffin. Then imagine if Monty Python or the Goon show staged his death, influenced by a gloomy philosopher turning the whole thing into a mediation on mortality. I think that’s as close as I’m going to get.

The production is adapted and directed by Patrick Marber fresh from staging another whacky hit, Tom Stoppard’s TRAVESTIES so he’s very attuned to the absurdity of language and situation and he has a top-notch cast with which to explore Ionesco’s imagination.

Rhys Ifans is often mesmerising as the snarling preening old wreck of a monarch oscillating between Lear and a tatty music hall comic. It’s often hard to take your eyes off Indira Varna’s stunningly beautiful hatchet of a queen. And Derek Griffiths as the soldier, Amy Morgan as the second wife, Debra Gillet as the dotty old servant and Adrián Scarborough as the creepy scientist all employ their considerable years of comic experience to ensure each “gag” lands with aplomb even if there’s little depth to the caricatures they’re required to play.

The other star of the production is the National Theatre’s design department, led by designer Anthony Ward. There are glorious steam-punk style contraptions, a crumbling set that becomes a metaphor in its own right in a final spectacular reveal and Ms Varana’s beautiful, 50’s style frock and accessories is worthy of Cecil Beaton and deserves an award all of its own.

Very, very weird, occasionally meandering (it could do with losing ten minutes) this is none the less a fascinating 90 minutes of theatre that you won’t forget in a hurry.

Exit The King tickets