Two Long-Lived Kings on the London Stage – New York Times
His belated and unwelcome reckoning with the grim reaper propels Ionesco’s play, which has been revived at the National in a fresh adaptation by its director, Patrick Marber, and is running in repertory through Oct. 6; the production is the first time a work by the celebrated Romanian-born French playwright has been at the National.
A classic of the absurdist repertoire, “Exit the King” (“Le Roi se meurt”) parallels “King Lear” in its defiant rage against the dying of the light (“I will remain standing and I will howl,” says the fallen despot, who gets a mini storm scene of his own). Depicting a kingdom facing collapse, Anthony Ward’s high-walled set shows a crack running through a royal crest, and it flies away to reveal an inky, existential blackness for the closing sequence. And as in Mr. Munby’s “Lear,” Mr. Marber extends the action into the audience: Runways would seem to be in vogue this season.
“I’m dying,” Bérenger bleats from his wheelchair, “so let everything die.” Mr. Ifans brings a chalk-faced, dark-eyed eloquence to a play that is at its best when musing on mortality and considerably less involving when attempting a deliberately off-kilter comedy that quickly palls. (Running about half the length of the new “Lear,” “Exit the King” feels far longer.)
The opening introduces a motley retinue of royal wives and hangers-on, who include two contrasting queens, a doctor-turned-obituarist (the ever-welcome Adrian Scarborough) and a bustling servant played by a game Debra Gillett, who also happens to be Mr. Marber’s wife. Presumably, she doesn’t mind playing a character noted in her husband’s fresh take on Ionesco’s script for her “ghoulish, bulging eyes.”
Positing a “proto-dystopia” where “abnormal is the new normal,” this “Exit the King” makes nods in the direction of today’s skewed political landscape, but such social commentary as might exist is sacrificed on the altar of facetiousness — I don’t recall remarks about “the royal hemorrhoid” and the like in other productions.
Mr. Ifans is the occasion here, in a performance light years removed from his scene-stealing screen turn as Hugh Grant’s slobby roommate in “Notting Hill,” which first brought him to a broader public. Indeed, between Bérenger and Mr. Ifans’s direct acquaintance with “King Lear” — he played the Fool to Glenda Jackson’s diminutive monarch in 2016 — the actor would seem to be circling Shakespeare’s piteous ruler for himself someday. Let’s hope it doesn’t take him 483 years.