Exit the King, National Theatre

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By Laura Kressly

There’s little that’s exciting about watching a petulant, man-child of a king taking 90-odd minutes to die whilst his two wives, a housekeeper, a guard and a ‘doctor’ debate his legacy and the reported collapse of his kingdom. But the design, that climactically progresses along with the king’s death, in this new version by Patrick Marber is a fine reward for enduring the tedium of snarky melodrama that makes up most of the performance.

Rhys Ifans is Berenger, the frail, railing leader who rants and raves – often incomprehensibly. He refuses to accept he is dying and this belief conflicts with what we are told is his inevitable demise. Though the character is painfully and easily compared to Trump, Marber – who also directs – fortunately doesn’t take this approach. Instead, there is a clearly French aesthetic of moustaches and over-the-top ceremony. An imposing stone wall bedecked with the royal crest is cracked in two, and three thrones – small, medium and large, as if they belong to the Three Bears – perch in the foreground. This vain Berenger, who believes he has the Divine Right of Kings, has installed a red carpet leading to his. 

It’s this choice, and that of the use of the stage’s lift, that facilitates the play’s instructions that Berenger’s world disappear. Not exit – disappear. Anthony Ward and Hugh Vanstone, designer and lighting designer respectively, work together to make the dying king’s world actually disappear. The final scenographic sequences are stunning. Almost imperceptibly, the fractured palatial wall futher splits and floats into a dark abyss. The red carpet and throne, representing Berenger’s royalty and pomposity – being for celebs at film premieres rather than world leaders – is all that remains and leads him off this mortal coil. These values are literally the death of him and his kingdom.

This final sequence is mesmerizing. The self-indulgent waffle and navel gazing that makes up the rest of Marber’s production? No thanks.

Exit the King runs through 6 October.

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