The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Summer-Autumn 2018
Eugene Ionesco's drama is a meditation on the act and the art of dying. It is frequently thought- and occasionally emotion-provoking, but I'm not absolutely certain that it benefits from being performed rather than just read.
It has a plot of sorts – we're told at the start that the king is going to die and (spoiler alert) at the end he does. But its structure is not really linear, instead circling back repeatedly to examine its subject from various angles: serious, comic, meditative, ironic, patient and impatient.
There are moments of brilliance, but even at roughly 100 minutes straight through it feels overlong. The last half-hour in particular drags unbearably (and perhaps intentionally, to reflect the just-get-on-with-it impatience that can be part of the dying process?), and adaptor-director Patrick Marber does not succeed in keeping the play any more alive than its protagonist.
The play is set in a curious fairytale kingdom that seems to have no inhabitants outside its court – the king, two queens, a doctor, a guard and a maid.
The others inform the king at the start that he is supposed to die by the end of the play and then spend the next hour and a half (the play operating in real time) convincing him to give in to the inevitable.
As he goes through Kubler-Ross's classic process – denial, anger, bargaining, et cetera (though Ionesco actually precedes Kubler-Ross) – everyone onstage gets to talk about death and dying from various perspectives.
As a kind of tutorial on how to die, the play has echoes throughout of such dramatic predecessors as Everyman and King Lear, and anticipations of others like Albee's Lady From Dubuque.
There are moments of slapstick farce, of sweetness and of cruelty. At times you sense the playwright just repeating the word Death as often as possible to domesticate it and remove its sting. And it does go on and on.
The characters are all written as types with a single dominant note, though it is frequently an original and intriguing one. In a fright wig and beard that make him look like Spike Milligan, Rhys Ifans is a not-very-bright king who slowly realises that, all things considered, he'd rather live than not.
Indira Varma plays his imperious and impatient senior queen with a touch of the social climber from Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, while Amy Morgan's junior queen is a former sex kitten who hasn't grasped that her habitual mannerisms are beginning to be more pathetic than cute, and Adrian Scarborough's doctor is a man trying to hide his camp flamboyance behind a mask of professionalism.
At least in this incarnation Exit The King is a play more good-for-you than good to sit through.
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