“An attempt at an apprenticeship in dying”

That is Eugène Ionesco’s ambition when he writes his most classical play Exit The King in 1962. Being part of the Theatre of the Absurd movement, this play deals with the absurdity of living and facing our inevitable end. The paradox of life positions us as self-aware creatures between survival instincts and the knowledge of our unavoidable death, which is part of the cycle of life.

The story of the end of King Bérenger and his kingdom is adapted and directed by Patrick Marber. Performed by Rhys Ifans as Bérenger and Indira Varma as his first wife Queen Marguerite, Exit The King is now being performed for the first time on the stage of the National Theatre.

The kingdom’s decay represents the decreasing health and decline of its king – King Bérenger I. Nevertheless, the king lives in oblivion to the unavoidable end of his – already over 400 years long – lifetime. However, his queens and the royal household aim to prepare him for his death. Queen Marguerite, a mother figure and the embodiment of reason, is supported by the Doctor (Adrian Scarborough) to convince Bérenger that death cannot be prolonged anymore. In contrast, the second Queen Marie (Amy Morgan), an innocent childlike figure, is consumed by her love for the king and continues to encourage Bérenger to cheat death once more. Throughout the play, Bérenger undergoes the various stages of facing his own death – denial, anger, bargaining and depression – in order to finally accept or to solely perform his end in a dying ritual. The king’s journey towards his end is commented on by the Guard (Derek Griffiths) and interrupted by the nurse and chambermaid Juliette (Debra Gillett).

Exit The King offers a surreal portrayal of the risks humans are willing to take to avoid facing their own end while balancing comedy and tragedy. This play about the paradox of life is cleverly constructed by Ionesco’s contemplations on life, fragments of philosophies and indestructible wit. It is revived convincingly in his legacy by Marber’s adaptation for the National Theatre.

The self-awareness of the play as a play, questions life as a performance of the own self, who is only given a limited time to develop, embody and exit his own life story. The characters consistently stress the metatheatrical performance by directly addressing the audience, by commenting on it themselves and by announcing their actions. The staging of Bérenger’s kingdom is integrated in the auditorium (designed by Anthony Ward), which turns the audience into active witnesses of the fate of King Bérenger. The collective greeting ceremony of the king is the climax to offer an intimate and participating theatre experience. Unfortunately, this is not followed by another collective ritual, even though the play’s guiding thread is the ritual of Bérenger’s death. This could have inspired more unifying moments between the performers and the audience.

The performers have skilfully mastered the language of tragic and comic of Ionesco’s play and thus are able to guide the audiences through moments of laughter and deeply severe scenes. Especially Ifans’ performance as Bérenger is outstanding as he genuinely entertains the audience within the tragic of the unfathomable situation of his character. The connectedness and energy of the ensemble is embedded in the visual feast of lighting, sound and set design to create a stunning journey for the audience.

Presented in a surreal scenario of an ever-present ticking of time and the shadows of a passing life, Lighting Designer Hugh Vanstone and Sound Designer Adam Cork construct an apocalyptic world of Bérenger’s dying kingdom. The end of the show marks a change of the design by Ward to present the faint path of the king’s final chapter hidden from the eyes of the witnesses – his death. Thus, the staging stresses the end of the shared journey of performers and audience to face the biggest mystery of humans’ existence as a sole and unimaginable crossing.

Exit The King is a captivating and thought-provoking performance between the extremes of tragic and comic to grasps human survival strategies within the paradox of living. The heritage of the Theatre of the Absurd within the school of thought of existentialism is convincingly and genuinely brought to life on stage of the National Theatre.

Exit the King is playing at the National Theatre until 6 October 2018. For more information and tickets, click here

Photo: Simon Annand