Exit the King is a wandering, absurdist play at the National Theatre

First performed in 1962, Exit The King is a tragic comedy about a clownish, centuries old despot who once held dominion over nature itself, but is forced to rapidly come to terms with his imminent death, his waning powers and his shrivelling kingdom.

A great crack runs down the castle wall. Ministers are falling into streams and drowning, or plunging into the abyss as the outside world disintegrates. “Youre going to die at the end of the play,” teases Queen Marguerite, the kings first wife, cracking the fourth wall as well as the first.

Patrick Marbers update of Eugène Ionescos absurdist drama is as silly as ever, but incorporates some topical touches – the story of a rapidly weakening empire and a tyrant desperate to cling to life and power in the face of an unavoidable fate is too inviting an open goal. And though its unlikely Marber can control the weather, the guards lament that the castles central heating has stopped working drew laughs from an audience glad to have momentarily escaped the heatwave outside.

Marber also finds an enthralling lead in Rhys Ifans as the hopeless king clinging to life. He shambles and crawls around on stage as his condition deteriorates in real time, his spine gradually curving and his sceptre becoming too heavy for his slight frame to bear. It is a brilliant, funny and captivating performance.

Exit The King is a 90 minute death throe, with young Queen Marie (Amy Morgan) in staunch denial, and Queen Marguerite (played icily by Game of Thrones Indira Varma) contently resigned, and glibly counting off the minutes until clogs are popped. “Dying isnt natural,” wails the king, “no one and nothing wants to do it.”

But while the performances are fascinating, the vigour of Ionescos play drains away in tandem with the kings. A final act ramps up the weirdness and tips over into vague surreality and dream-logic, the plotline and characters becoming more and more diffuse until interest eventually starts to wander elsewhere.

It would be deeply antithetical to Ionescos ideas to give his play about the benign inevitability of death some kind of a point, rather than portray it as he does: as an unceremonious stroll into the misty darkness with hardly a farewell. But while the plays destination is unsatisfying, the journey there is anything but.

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