★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
A great script is nothing without great actors and great actors are nothing without a great script. Sadly that has never been truer than with Patrick Marber's new version of Eugène Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist play Exit the King for the National Theatre.
Eugène Ionesco was a Romanian-born French dramatist who inspired a revolution in dramatic techniques and helped inaugurate the "Theatre of the Absurd".
In Exit the King, Rhys Ifans leads a cast of familiar television faces; Indira Varma (Game of Thrones), Amy Morgan (Mr Selfridge), Derek Griffiths (Coronation Street), Debra Gillett (Cranford) and Adrian Scarborough (Gavin & Stacey) in this 100-minute long, single-act play about a 483 year-old monarch who is struggling to accept the fact after ruling a surreal kingdom for over 400 years.
Unfortunately, the story wasn't compelling enough to hold my full attention and interest throughout. I found myself far more interested in the set design (which was very impressive, especially in the final minutes) and the costumes, rather than the plot which is in no way to discredit the actors who all did the best with the material they had.
Debra Gillett proves herself as a great comedy actor playing the part of, for want of a better word, cleaner Juliette , Adrian Scarborough prances around the stage as The Doctor beautifully, in a way only he knows how but unfortunately Derek Griffiths was under-used. On stage throughout as The Guard, he isn't given nearly enough dialogue. What was a joy to watch was the chemistry between Indira Varma and Amy Morgan as Queen Marguerite and Queen Marie, two women with different opinions on how to deal with the King's unavoidable demise.
But the standout performance of the play has to belong to Rhys Ifans. Best-known for playing Spike in Notting Hill, his performance as King Bérenger is full of emotion, desperation and denial and commanded the audience's attention throughout.
From the moment he entered majestically through the auditorium (to a standing ovation no less) to the moment he exited the stage, Rhys was physically sensational and at times terrifying as he crept into the audience with a face full of make-up and menacing eyes. Unfortunately, Ifans was let down by the dialogue which failed to connect with a 2018 audience.
My main take away from Exit the King is that Ifans is a very accomplished and talented actor who deserves to be seen a lot more, whether that's on stage or on television. Although quite why he was styled as a cross between Frank Gallagher from Shameless and Noel Fielding I'll never know. That just proved to be a further distraction for me as I counted down to my exit from the Olivier Theatre.
Exit the King runs until 6th October at 7:30pm at the National Theatre (Olivier Theatre). Book tickets here.
(This review is based on the press night performance from Wednesday 25th July)