Exit The King (Ustinov Studio)

”Exit The King” is a fitting end to a terrific year of work for the Ustinov Stdip.

Alun Armstrong (King Berenger) in Exit The King.
Alun Armstrong (King Berenger) in Exit The King.

It’s been a fine year for the Ustinov theatre and its capped off with a customary excellently performed production of Ionesco’s darkly black comedy Exit The King. Lawrence Boswell has crafted a rather, tender, moving thing out of this absurdist piece, helped along with acting of the finest order.

This season has been grouped under three black comedies but another powerful theme is that of powerful men struck down by old age and mortality, Edgar in Play Strindberg, The Father in Florian Zeller’s play of the same name and now King Berenger, ruler for four hundred year, a man who tells us he controlled the weather, discovered nucleur fisson and now f has but one hour to live.

Bounding on stage like a child who has found himself king, an image helped by his oversized crown resembling a Burger King crown, Alun Armstrong crafts a performance as the desperate King, that demands these rare stage performances, should become much more frequent. He is blessed with a character actors face that expresses multitudes and demands to be watched; it can be used to terrifying effect, when he turns petty we can see the dictatorship one feels the kingdom must have fallen into, but also pathetic, childish and as his light fades ultimately touching. Ionesco knew his classics and it isn’t by accident that as Berenger approaches death and his sight goes he resembles Gloucester at the cliff edge and the blind prophet Tiresius finally .

If the play doesn’t ever quite hit the riches of the masterpieces of Shakespeare and Sophocles its because the form does test the patience at times. Jeremy Sam‘s new translation can’t escape the fact that Ionesco is prone to point can be hammered home a little too heavy handed and the world Ionesco feels a little more blasé then it once did, we are now used to embracing the strange, fantastical imaginations of those such as The Mighty Boosh. It is only in its final ten minutes that this King truly finds itself.

This is helped by Siobhan Redmond‘s mythical performance as the spurned first wife. Standing apart from the action, looking in, she watches over the action, commenting on it with a glacial serenity until there is no one left but herself and her husband at which point the production changes tack, from the absurd into yearning and aching that shows love at its most tender and rich.

There are fine supporting performances from all; from Beth Park who provides a counterpoint to Redmond as the younger, newer model of a Queen, wanting to protect her husband from the truth, from William Gaunt with a baritone smoothed in honey as the Doctor and from Marty Cruickshank and Roy Sampson as the servant and guard who make up this motley entourage.

Boswell utilises the space to its best advantage and with a superb sound score by Isobel Waller-Bridge, lighting design by Joshua Carr and a palace gone to pot design by Anna Fleischle, it all adds to the sense of a world that has seen its best days. Each play this season has seen a stripping away of furnishings as the plays progress. This one goes a step further in its final moments which shows a coup de théatér doesn’t need to be complex to work its magic. It seems a fitting climax to what has been a superb, challenging and thought provoking season at the Ustinov.