Geoffrey Rush in Exit The King. Photo - Lisa Tomasetti.
Exit the King, which has just opened at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, is a co-production with Sydney's Company B Belvoir and brings together a host of talents, not least of them Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield who collaborated on the translation of Eugene Ionesco's 1962 play. With such talent come high expectations. Happily this reviewer was far from disappointed, how could you be when presented with such a memorable night of great theatre.
French/Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco is remembered as the father of the Theatre of the Absurd. He is perhaps best known for his short plays The Bald Soprano (1950) and The Chairs (1952) as well as his longer play Rhinoceros (1959). The central character in this and his later full-length plays, is a semi-autobiographical character named Berenger, a loner, isolated form the world around him and fighting an uphill battle to survive.
In Exit the King Ionesco creates Berenger as the ruler of a kingdom that is in rapid decay. There are dramatic changes in the weather patterns, the behaviour of the planets (even the Milky Way seems to have curdled), and people are ageing by decades rather than days. His court is reduced to six - himself, his first and second wives, his doctor, a guard and a cleaner. Not only is his kingdom crumbling around him but he too is close to death. Despite the protestations of his doctor and his first wife, Berenger refuses to accept that he is dying, and is not prepared to let go of his power. His second wife also lives in hope and does all she can to support him.
The writing, needless to say, is strong, extremely funny and frequently poignant, highlighting the joys and absurdities of being human. I particularly loved an exchange in the second act where the king now very close to death, revives long enough to request some stew. The doctor's response: stew is not good for a dying man. Shortly afterwards someone comments: it's death that will kill him now. The final exchange between the King and his first wife, where she slowly but surely relieves him of all his burdens, encouraging him to let go of all that is weighing him down, is beautifully performed and directed, so much so that I became totally engrossed, completely focused on the king (Marguerite was almost off stage) and failed to notice some fundamental changes in the scenery, changes that echoed the physical and emotional transformation taking place before my eyes.
Set and costumes (Dale Ferguson) beautifully support the comedy and absurdity of the play. The Queens are dressed in over-long trains that constantly have to be kicked out of the way. The make-up is overdone and clownish. Overall there is a real sense of grandeur in decay. The flooring suggests a chess board with its Kings and Queens, Castles and Knights, all dark green squares. The back drapes are reminiscent of tapestries hanging from a castle wall. To one side there is a red throne with steps leading up to it and, just beside it, two massive wooden beams that seem to be holding up a wall. A strip of red carpet leads from back stage into the audience and under the raised seats of the Merlyn Theatre, helping to create a sense that the whole space, audience included, is part of the set and indeed, part of the court
Geoffrey Rush delights in his role as Berenger revealing yet again his comic talents and his very real physical abilities. He moves like a marionette whose strings keep letting him down - tumbling in a heap to the floor, somersaulting amidst an hilarious tangle of royal cloak and train. His limbs simply will not obey him, he has lost control over them as surely as he has lost control of his kingdom and everyone in it. Queen Marguerite (Gillian Jones), his first wife, is cold and practical and has no time for Queen Marie (Rebecca Massey) who is a blubbery mess at the thought of losing her king. The Doctor/Astrologist (Bille Brown), the armoured guard (David Woods) and the cleaner (Julie Forsyth) are each strong in their roles. Forsyth is particularly funny as the maid, who moves like a wind-up doll and addresses the king as one might a sick child: my poor baby, my poor little king.
The sound design (Russell Goldsmith) benefits from the use of live as well as recorded music and the evocative sounds of jazz trumpet, played by the noted jazz musician Scott Tinkler, effectively underline some of the most poignant moments of the play.
Speaking on the ABC's 7.30 Report the other night Geoffrey Rush said that as an actor he always put himself in the place of the audience and worked hard to ensure that their experience would be bigger, bolder and better than when they bought their ticket.
Buy your ticket secure in the knowledge that you will not be disappointed.
Malthouse Theatre and Company B present
Exit The King
By Eugene Ionesco
Translated by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush
Venue: Merlyn Theatre | CUB Malthouse
Season: Saturday 24 March – Saturday 21 April 2007
Opening: Wednesday 28 March
Performance Times: Tuesdays at 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm. Matinees – Saturday 31 March, 14 April and 21 April at 2.30pm; Thursday 5 April, 12 April, 19 April at 1.30pm.
Tickets: $15 - $47 + booking fee
Bookings: Malthouse Box Office 9685 5111 | www.malthousetheatre.com.au