Exit The King
by Eugene Ionesco.
Adapted by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush.
Directed by Neil Armfield.
Featuring Lauren Ambrose, William Sadler, Susan Sarandon, Brian Hutchison, Andrea Martin, others.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York,
Geoffrey Rush in "Exit the King". Photo: Joan Marcus
"Exit The King" & Other Cruelties
With a movement that at some points resembles a shambles in its attack on orderly progress, at other moments a slide of the entire body into chaos, all parts at odds with all others, in spite of this, Geoffrey Rush in "Exit "The King" makes it onto his throne by the last curtain. He is enacting The Absurd, though no such statement is made, an understanding that the human body has no known relation to the ground it tries to stand on. He persists through failure, flailing an arm or a leg more or less in the direction of a raised throne, so the event achieved, getting himself seated, occurs in the act of the opposite, not reaching his throne.
The action is remarkable, not only in that the marvelous Geoffrey Rush can make it tellingly real, physically, obviously an exhausting progress, we'd have to call it since it has a goal-yes, of course it is metaphoric-- a progress toward death that kills him. The effect is hilarious, alienating, and quite divorced from that ultimate meaning, so that we find ourselves hoping this gnarled, ill assembled collection of physical parts, useless, extras, oddments, will make it and therefore will be saved.
An absurd condition.
Not only is death constantly present in everything Ionesco writes, but it is present as dying-one's own and other people's, universal and incessant." (Kott, 97)
Right; simply, the King gets no closer through experience to his goal of escaping certain death, but that increasing weakness makes the goal visionary, and yet humanly compelling. This lies at the essence of Ionesco: to see death as omnipresent, inevitable, yet to persist in fighting it Is the physical wretch helped at all?
Depends on what you mean. A statuesque Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon) present during the entire time goads him quietly and cooly with insults, misunderstandings, proverbial truisms undermining him at every chance. So, as in her likeness to a helpmeet and partner. What do you want to sit up there for? The chair doesn't suit you. You're too old for challenges. I am paraphrasing; She is the beautiful, distant goddess of defeat whose power exceeds all. It is the illusion of helpers and saviors that express the cruelty of the King's, and to some extent all of Ionesco's characters and conditions.
This should be too grim to bear. But the deep impulses in us to convert every sign of tragedy into comedy come to Ionesco's rescue. The performances are so smooth as to be undetectable: what is seen is the real world. And that is what Ionesco aimed for: a transference of off stage reality and theatrical unreality. Especially he wanted "to exteriorize the anxiety" of his characters, "to project visible images of fear, regret, remorse, alienation." (Kott,104)
Performances in this production were wholly excellent. With nothing to say a good deal of the time, Susan Sarandon as Queen Marguerite was nonetheless eloquent and beautiful. Mr. Rush acts, enacts, performs, is nothing less than "on" from curtain up. He sways, he gambols, he leans into the air. The current impulse in New York which I've written in this column many times to move against theater, to make anti-theater, was blessedly not in evidence. There's nothing out there "like" King and Queen so perhaps that mitigated against representation as an aim. The movement called The Absurd intended precisely to destroy representation as the theatrical goal; in this Ionesco here succeeded.