Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City
When Geoffrey Rush collected the Tony in June for best performance by a leading actor in a play, he highlighted just what Exit the King had achieved on Broadway, thanking “Manhattan audiences for proving that French existentialist absurdist tragi-comedy rocks”.
This 1962 play by Eugene Ionesco is rarely performed but, after Company B scored a success with a production in Melbourne in 2007, it was brought to New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre along with existing cast members Rush and Susan Sarandon. It traces the decline of King Berenger the First who one day, after living for 400 years, finally has to face up to dying, wasting away as his kingdom disappears around him.
But this is not the demanding intellectual play you may expect. This new translation by Rush and director Nick Armfield brings out the high comedy of the play, with Rush’s vaudevillian antics and spellbinding physicality ensuring the pace never drops. His energy overshadows Sarandon as his world-weary first wife and William Sadler as his doctor, both marshalling him towards death, but Lauren Ambrose shines as his second younger wife, egging him on to defy fate and live just a little bit longer. Andrea Martin and Brian Hutchison as the king’s servants add to the unexpected joyful knockabout humour of this wonderful play about death and decay.
Amateur Stage magazine