Eugene Ionesco once called Exit the King "an apprenticeship in dying". It's worse than that. It is the thing itself. Watching this absurdist classic half a century on is simply death – one of those purgatorial nights at the theatre that makes you long for the light at the end of the tunnel. The National's bars should start stocking barbiturates on tap. They'd make a killing.
In a playing card kingdom, the king is dying. As his once-proud country collapses in comical fashion – its universities falling "into the abyss", its swimming pools set ablaze, its bistros empty – Rhys Ifans' 483 year-old monarch, King Berenger, must come to terms with his own demise.
In elevating his everyman figure, Berenger, to the throne, Ionesco insists that death, for each and every one of us, is the loss of our everything – all our earthly possessions and powers. We are, all of us, rulers of our own lives and the slow drift through indignity, decrepitude and dementia is an enforced abdication of all we once were.
It is a simple point and a profound one, though not one that sustains an hour and a half of overblown verbosity and polite, pantomime clowning that hits the same notes again and again. Adrian Scarborough's obsequious Royal Doctor skitters around, squirting syringes into the stalls. Debra Gillett's housemaid totters beneath ten-foot feather dusters and fly-swatters. The king's two queens sit by his side: Indira Varma haughtily as his first wife Maguerite; Amy Morgan, as his second, purring like a Champs-Élysées glamourpuss.
British actors don't do buffoon and it shows. Adapter-director Patrick Marber mishandles the style of an extant play that requires a complete reboot. What felt absurd in 1963 looks antiquated today, and Exit the King's comedy needs a livewire anarchy but gets hamminess instead. Its new text is merely cosmetic work on a corpse, nodding to climate change and mindfulness, without rewiring the form.
A pity: the play has plenty to say. It could puncture our age of aspiring immortality with its lycra-clad clean-eaters, botoxed beauty and evergreen baby-boomers. By hooking a man's death to a nation's demise, Exit the King marries the personal and political – a cackle in the face of the coming cliff-edge Brexit – and there's a mischief in mocking a dysfunctional royal family from the main stage of the Royal National Theatre. Especially with the Queen pushing 93.
Ifans, his spiked crown swapped for a woolly hat, sometimes catches the croak of Prince Philip, but mostly, cuddled in ermine and pale as a skull, he looks like an aging rocker – his long, lank locks giving him the air of Iggy Pop in pyjamas. He's an old shagger king sliding into impotence, once proudly omnipotent, now unable to stand. Such straining for dignity ought to be comic, but Ifans overplays his pomp and pre-empts his pratfalls, only cutting through with a lurching epiphany, suddenly pitiable as his fate dawns: "How do you die?"
The same's true of a show that, after creaking like an arthritic knee for ages, comes together with a final coup de théâtre. As a deserted King Berenger takes leave of his kingdom, Anthony Ward's set vanishes into a void. Its spirit soars up, its stage descends below. As the king exits, disappearing to a dot, time and space themselves seem to evaporate – an undeservedly poignant end to a deadly evening.