Rhys Ifans Gives Absurdly Royal Performance In Exit The King

Exit the King, National Theatre ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 8 months ago

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Rhys Ifans Gives Absurdly Royal Performance In Exit The King Exit the King, National Theatre 4
Photo: Simon Annand

Eugène Ionesco’s 1962 play Exit the King is a classic piece of absurdist theatre. The French-Romanian playwright described this surreal, existentialist tragicomedy as “an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying”. With the 483-year-old King Bérenger I’s kingdom facing apocalypse, his first queen bluntly tells him, “you’re going to die at the end of the play”. The king has ninety minutes to come to terms with his mortality.

Photo: Simon Annand

As his second queen sympathetically remarks, “everyone is the first person ever to die”. This taps into Ionesco’s main paradoxical theme that although we know from an early age that death is an inevitable fact, we tend to avoid acknowledging its emotional reality until the time comes when we resist it.

But the play is far from all doom and gloom, with its zany humour and continual breaking of the fourth wall. When the king makes his striking stage entrance by walking down the red carpet along the central aisle through the audience (with a ludicrously long cloak dragging behind him), we are all commanded to rise.

Photo: Simon Annand

The one-liners dazzle in this lively new version by Patrick Marber, who also directs the entertaining if slightly overblown production. Anthony Ward’s set features a lofty palace wall emblazoned with the royal coat of arms split symbolically by a jagged fissure, which at the end completely disappears in a spectacular coup de théâtre.

The gangly Rhys Ifans commands the stage as the vainly demanding, pyjama-clad Bérenger in a terrific physical performance, with his face painted ghostly white, a supersized crown atop his head and clinging on to his sceptre like a walking stick. It’s very funny but ultimately full of pathos. In a haunting final image we see him fading away on his throne into red dry ice in a right royal exit.

Exit the King, National Theatre (Olivier), South Bank, SE1 9PX. Tickets £15–£50, until 6 October 2018.

Last Updated 26 July 2018