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.