From the absolutely ga-ga reaction that seems to be pervading the press, you’d think the new production of the infrequently performed Exit the King, by Eugene Ionesco, were unequivocally some kind of grand theatrical second coming (which is either ironic or fitting for a play about an impending death, but we’ll get to that). And I won’t deny the validity of that experience for those who claim it. I won’t even deny that you may be among those who might share it. That I didn’t hews to a much larger and more important (and intriguing) issue than simply whether or not I liked it. Because I both liked it and didn’t. And now to explain:
Ionesco was an absurdist dramatist. Because of Rhinoceros, and its metaphorical look at the dehumanizing nature of fascism in the wake of WWII, he’s often popularly thought of as a playwright predominantly of the mid-20th century; but he wrote well into the mid-late ‘70s and himself lived until 1996. There’s no question he was a pioneer of sorts, but the window in which his stuff could be viewed as bold or shocking by an audience needful of having their conventions shaken up, or their consciousness stirred (or soothed) by starkly symbolic, broad-strokes agit-prop, is gone The sophistication and speed of latter-day storytelling (mostly via the last several decades of television) has given even lay audiences a subliminal education in story structure and thematic development. It doesn’t take long for them—for us—to understand the point of a metaphor and sense its obvious conclusion. Which is why Rhonoceros is so hard to stage effectively these days. Unless the performances dazzle, it’s as repetetive and long winded as the beasts themselves.
Still—we’re not quite talking about writing that is obsolete (i.e. no longer worthwhile) or unnecessary. It’s the work of artists like Ionesco that helped pave the way for contemporary sophistication, as did Ibsen’s well-made plays that can seem so schematic nowadays. You can’t forget them or neglect them, because they provided so many clear stepping-stones.
Yet the question remains: What then constitutes proper attention and respect? What’s the current necessity?
That can only be determined by two things: Your own need as an audience member—and the need of the theatrical community, as a gestalt, never to forget any of its many important roots. The academic and historical needs speak for themselves without any needed explication. That leaves you: the audience member.
Exit the King, a black comedy, is about King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) who refuses to face his own pending mortality, and does everything possible to fight it off, despite everything crumbling about him giving evidence to the futility of his effort: the kingdom his mismanagement has ruined, the army that has fallen apart with the seeming exception of a single fawning Guard (Brian Hutchinson), the castle staff that has deserted save for one overworked maid with no other options (Andrea Martin), a quack of a royal physician (William Sadler), and an embittered Queen (Susan Sarandon). It is ironically only the youngest member of the court, his misty-eyed newer Queen (Lauren Ambrose) who tries in vain to encourage his fight with the encroaching darkness.
As some photographic evidence on the ‘net would indicate, there are many ways to approach this piece in terms of playing style. In this production imported with its star, Mr. Rush (co-adapter with director Neil Armfeld), from his native Australia, though with a completely American supporting cast, there seems to be a desire to exploit and induce the range of visceral reactions people have to clowns. For here, the king in his blue striped pajamas and cape is most assuredly a clown, and at first an amusingly narcissistic one, prone to jabber, reaction “takes” and elaborate pratfalls—all of which Mr. Rush performs with a physical dexterity that seems equal to Bill Irwin, and a vocal delivery that ranges from the avuncular delivery of a Bruce Forsythe-like musical hall duffer to the volatile madness of John Hurt’s I, Claudius Caligula. But as desperation begins to claim him, along with deterioration, he becomes a clown of nightmares, his face seeming to shrivel before our eyes into a Death’s Head mask. Save for the Queen, a wryly somber Ms. Sarandon as the voice of pragmatism and ultimately doom, all the others in the cast are clowns of a sort as well, the difference being they never change in essence, only somewhat in reaction, deepening their archetypes for the otherwise insensitive king’s (and our) edification. (As performers, all provide fine support for Mr. Rush.)
If all this sounds somewhat sublime, it somewhat is; the piece could not be treated with more respect, nor could Mr. Rush as star be giving the audience more worth for their money: his is a roaring tour de force.
But the play, the play…
It is a one note samba. Mr. Ionesco varies the samba somewhat, trying to examine it from different angles, but they’re not different enough from one another because he’s not dramatizing real people but rather archetypes, and the broad strokes all serve to underscore the fatalistic message—that everything dies in time—power, governments, social orders—because the people promoting and in the end clinging to them also die.
And it just goes on and on, and the point is made over and over, and Act Two is not so different from Act One except that it allows for supporting character soliloquy and takes us deeper into the descent, and then when the stage is cleared of all save the now-cadaverous seeming King, a barely ambulatory, stumbling puppet, and the Queen to guide him through his moment-to-moment final departure, she turns to us, does the Queen, and tells us the King has twelve minutes left…
And depending upon your stamina, they may seem like the longest twelve minutes of your life.
If ever there was a play that cried out, nay demanded, to be cut—not only for the sake of the audience, but indeed to make its single point more powerfully—surely it is Exit the King. What could exit is at least 30 minutes, and I’m willing to bet 40 could go that no one would miss, and you could make the play seem like the masterpiece that (I’m sorry) it simply isn’t.
But then are you presenting Exit the King? On the other hand, this is not just an English translation but an English adaptation, so how purely is it Exit the King anyway, even in spirit? Are these questions, is this issue, even as important and provocative as I think they may be?
I can’t tell you. All I know, ironically, is this:
Ain’t no one alive to give us an authoritative answer…