Monday, May 18, 2009
Exit the King
Last Wednesday, as part of my birthday present, I traveled uptown to see Geoffrey Rush's adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King. The play was a new production of the same Rush put on in Melbourne, newly cast with the devastatingly stately Susan Sarandon and blazing, childlike Lauren Ambrose.
In my experience, Theater of the Absurd can be cloying, or totally boring. But this production is exceptional in that it is brimming with life, unafraid to make fun of itself, and more importantly, unafraid to get serious when things need to get serious. King Berenger is over four-hundred years old. His kingdom has fallen into ruin. As days go by, it actually shrinks in size, people and places falling into a growing abyss. At the beginning of the play, his first wife, Queen Marguerite (Sarandon) calls Queen Marie (Ambrose), his younger, second wife, into the throne room to tell her that the King is finally dying.
Hysterically, Marie refuses to believe Marguerite, or the doctor, who verifies that the King will not live. Marie begs them to keep the information from him, but both insist that he must know so he can come to terms with both his life and its inevitable ending. As the King enters the throne room, Marguerite lowers the boom. Of course the King is in total denial, insisting he feels fine when he can barely stand. Near the end of the first act Marguerite cools informs him that he only has an hour and a half to live, at the end of which he will die and the play will be over.
As the play features a corrupt, impotent monarch, the play's director, Neil Armfield could have gone a very direct route:
And very nearly does, in a monologue given by the King's guard, during which he praises him for his efforts in "national security," and even quotes haphazardly from "O Captain, My Captain," much like a frat boy at a patriotic event might, moved by emotion (unsure of the poem's actual inspiration). Instead the production focuses on the King's loss of power in a generally human sense, which levels him and then grounds him to the point where he is totally alone. At first, he loses his capability to order people and things around. He commands rain, there is none. He commands the guard to walk two paces, he cannot. He demands Marie to come to him, she claims she's forgotten how to use her legs. His executive orders are lost.
In remembering his childhood, the King regresses, and is confined to a wheelchair. He makes a paltry attempt at bonding with his mistreated maid, in which they both celebrate the joys of stew ("Those lovely carrots!" he exclaims), but it's a lost cause. The damage has already been done. Queen Marie remains convinced that he will live on if he continues to love her, but the ravages of his disease prevent him from recognizing her, and she disappears. Soon he is left alone on the stage with Queen Marguerite, who has, it turns out, been right about everything all along.
This production's success is its ability to wax philosophically without being heavy-handed. Convinced that he would never die unless he "decided" to, the King is mentally and emotionally unprepared for his demise. His false confidence in his own immortality is the very cause of his downfall. Queen Marguerite says he has no excuse. You should have thought of this everyday, she says. The fact that death will come. Everyday, at least five minutes a day. It's not altogether bad advice.
While we live for others in life, the transition to death is one we must make alone. The superb set design, lighting, and of course the talents of this cast reinforce Berenger's metamorphosis from King to man, nothing but a broken down instrument, left in the wings. Even if one isn't quite ready to think about the prospect of death for five minutes a day, every day, Exit the King is not to be missed.