“Exit the King” is a lesson in theatre. Every aspect and element of this production is of the highest standard I have seen this year. This is by far and away the greatest piece of theatre I have seen, certainly this year, if not any other. Nothing can be faulted - this is a triumph for both Company B and Malthouse.
On face value, Exit the King is about the death of a King. However it isn’t as simple as that. Indeed, it is stated plainly at the outset that King Berenger will be dead by plays end, and so you expect this inevitable climax. More interestingly though is Berenger’s journey into death and what the play has to say about human nature, greed, mortality, acceptance of death and self preservation.
The translation of Ionesco’s darkly funny play has been skilfully handled by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush. It marries period dialogue with contemporary dialogue in a way that maintains the piece’s intended absurdism, but keeps it rooted. The language therein allows the characters to paint Berenger’s dilapidated kingdom with pinpoint accuracy and imagination.
The cast are in a word astonishing. This is a fine assembly of committed and talented actors and actresses. The play itself, being performed in heightened stylised characters and make up. Each of these fine performers were convincing without question or fault. Bille Brown was austere as the doctor and Gillian Jones was bitterly cold and stern as Queen Marguerite. That is until her beautiful performance where she unburdens the king before he finally expires, in an ultimate act of genuine love. Rebecca Massey, Julie Forsyth and David Woods were equally stellar as Queen Marie, Juliette and the guard.
Much can be said of Geoffrey Rush’s portrait of the King. This was a truly inspired performance. Rush’s Berenger was played like a petulant child with a toy, which was a stroke of genius as it showed his obsession with power and greed. Then over the course of the play we see him slowly descend into senility, losing his sight, his strength and finally dying. Of particular note in Rush’s performance was the incredible physicality he brought to the role and not just physically demonstrating the stages toward death I alluded to. At one point his hair turns from auburn to white in an instant and we witness the king age fourteen centuries. This is achieved through Rush’s laboured physicality in which audiences behold the spectacle of the King as he progressively diminishes in frame and stature. It was a portrayal of both voice and physical robustness that painted this king as a pathetic megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur.
The production design was lavish, the set a sparse throne room, which was slowly falling to ruin, as with the kingdom and its king. The walls of which were supported by wooden beams, which quaked and fell as the king neared death.
Neil Armfield’s direction was brilliant. Not only did he direct the dramatic action with flare, but his use of the space was equally brilliant. Not one section of Belvoir’s considerable sized stage went unused. The actors explored the furthest reaches of the stage with genuine motivation. The sound design provided an eerie sound scape and was nicely synthesised with live trumpeting by Warwick Adler which added greater depth to the piece.
I could go on singing the praises of this production, but the simple fact is that this was, in my opinion one of the strongest pieces of theatre to be produced thus far in Sydney.
Company B & Malthouse Theatre present
Exit the King
by Eugene Ionesco
Belvoir St Theatre | 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills
9 June - 29 July
Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday - Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
$52 - $44
(02) 9699 3444