‘Exit the King’ review

Theatre, Comedy
3 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(7user reviews)

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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.

By: Holly Williams



Users say (7)

3 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

3.1 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:1
  • 4 star:2
  • 3 star:2
  • 2 star:1
  • 1 star:1
2 people listening

I didn’t really know what to expect, as I didn’t know anything about absurdist theatre. What a great surprise! The play is immensely funny, while touching a very sensitive subject: death. The setting works amazingly with the story, and the acting is fantastic! I’m truly impressed, mainly with Rhys Ifans, who goes from decrepit, dying king to potent, refusing-to-die human (not ready to come to terms with his mortality). But all actors are excellent on their zigzag of silly and profound characters. The end scene is bittersweet and truly beautiful. And what they can do the simplest setting and perfect lighting...! 


Though this play has aged considerably since it's debut in the 60s, it's the transformative set and star talent that make this play a delight. Due to it's short run time (that, in my honest opinion starts to drag towards the end) there is no interval, and with that lack of breathing time, is perhaps why the play begins to drag its feet- a little like the King himself. 

However, Rhys Ifans as the fading king and Indira Varma as Queen Marguerite are master strokes, upholding their parts brilliantly, especially as they rarely leave the stage. The cavernous Olivier theatre also serves as the perfect setting for the more surreal elements of the play. Even if you are in two minds, the £15 tickets are a steal and should make your decision for you, though I recommend you see the play anyway!


This is a play written by Ionesco & first appeared in 1962. The play hasn't stood up that well, and really only works as a curiosity piece. Having said that I have to add that the cast do an admirable job, and they all try hard to breath life into the piece. Rhys Ifans (who doesn't normally impress me) is excellent & gives his all in portraying King Berenger, the King unable to accept his imminent death, There is also a noteworthly performance from Indira Varma as Queen Marguerite. 


The latest production of Exit the King is positioned as a "surreal comedy". While not very surreal at all, it is a bit silly and has some really funny moments. The cast is impressive Rhys Ifans embodying the dying King phenomenally and Indra Varma playing a treacherously bitter Queen.The play is 1 hour 40 minutes without any interval. While I was never dozing off, I do think it could all have been wrapped up within the hours.

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.

You may also like
    Latest news