Rhys Ifans lights up this baggy take on Ionesco‘s surreal comedy
Death comes to us all, and we’re lousy at preparing for it. And probably would be even if we lived for 483 years – like King Berenger, of Ionesco’s absurd comedic tragedy, who squirms in the face of his impending, certain demise. A capricious, despotic ruler with fantastical powers, he’s frittered away his time on earth, screwing up as a ruler and leaving his kingdom in a much-diminished state; even the natural world seems to be rebelling – planets colliding, earthquakes a-trembling.
Patrick Marber’s new version of Ionesco’s 1962 play – which he also directs – has a comic, fresh-sounding idiom and a top-notch cast. But – much like its reluctant, playing-for-time king – it is also baggy and raggedy and outstays its welcome. I felt more in tune with his frustrated, chivvying subjects than with Berenger’s cosmic despair.
Ionesco saw the play as the fruit of his own attempt to ‘learn how to die’, and there is a crawling towards a sage, rather Buddhist renunciation of attachment. The final moments expand into something more existentially magisterial, but there’s a lot of very repetitive squabbling to get to that point that had me wishing he’d shuffle off bit quicker.
This may perhaps be down to Marber directing his own work; a sharp second pair of eyes might have trimmed things more sleekly, or offered fresh verve.
Luckily, the king is played by Rhys Ifans, who is a marvel. Dressed in blue pyjamas and an absurdly long train, he comes in with a louche obnoxiousness that’s grotesquely entertaining. But during the course of the show, he physically crumbles before our eyes via a decrepit sort of slapstick, until his body almost seems turned to dust.
The set – a great cracked wall emblazoned with a coat of arms – similarly comes apart, as if in sympathy, and there’s a final, totally transformative flourish in Anthony Ward’s design that suddenly makes full and stylish and gloweringly ominous use of the cavernous Olivier space.
The rest of the cast play assorted wives and servants, with a heightened, daft silliness that suits the nonsensical, almost fairytale world they’re in – although that too all falls away for some step-change earnestness at the end.
Indira Varma is superb as the king’s first wife Marguerite, got up like a Disney villain in a black velvet fishtail gown, all imperious impatience; her comic lines drop like a guillotine. Amy Morgan, playing the King’s adoring, if tacky, second wife Margerite is a buoyant presence, although hamstrung by a comedy French accent that makes everything less funny. Debra Gillett as an earthy, much put-upon servant is a cartoonish delight. They elevate the material. Still, it’s not the best sign when you’ve got one eye on the exit yourself.
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This is one of those cookie-cutter productions where the actors do their best with what is ultimately a relentlessly dull and over-laboured play. It’s billed as a tragi-comedy but very funny it isn’t. Unless you belly laugh at the running “gag” of the non-royal characters having to take a big stride to avoid stepping on the royal red carpet...
Adrian Scarborough plays his usual character as does Derek Griffiths. Rhys Ifans is good and Indira Varma is her usual excellent self but she really isn’t given much to work with here.
It’s all terribly static. The six characters are on stage for pretty much most of the play. Characters occasionally appear in various doors on the “advent calendar” set for no apparent reason.
The best part is the staging of the last scene which is very striking. Unfortunately by that time I was just willing it to finish ASAP.
1 hour 40 felt like 4.
Acting was great and production good. But the play was unengaging.
Unusually for a star turn the applause at the end was muted....
Silly, surreal and absorbing. After the disaster last year that was Don Juan in Soho, Patrick Marber must be pleased to have struck form again by collecting a perfect cast and a disciplined production which helps to wipe away that low point in his career. A winner for The National and further evidence after A Christmas Carol that Ifans is The King. Pure pleasure, plus it doesn't outstay its welcome. Four stars.