Exit the King
Chippen Street Theatre
Writer: Eugene Ionesco
Director: Anna Jahjah
March 7-16, 2019
Exit the King, written in 1962, is often described as the most accessible of Ionesco’s plays, and is generally read as a lament for human mortality.
At a time when the focal point of dying has become either having enough insurance to pay for our funeral, or having input into the celebration of our lives after our death, Théâtre Excentrique’s Exit the King sees death as an opportunity to relinquish control and go gently and beautifully into that dark night.
We are informed at the opening by the steely Queen Marguerite (a splendid Kirsty Jordan) that the 483 year-old King Berenger (Leof Kingsford-Smith) must die before the end of the play, and the play itself becomes his journey to the point where he accepts death. A difficult role in the sense that we find it difficult to like Berenger – he is tyrannical, callous, ridiculous and whiney – Kingsford-Smith maintains our concern by conveying the depth of his fear at the prospect of death.
His “court” has greatly diminished and consists of a panicky long-legged maid-of-all-work, Juliet (Alison Windsor), an insanely cheery guard/herald (Josef Schneider), who at regular intervals announces the king’s contradictory wishes or state of mind to the audience’s amusement, a doctor/executioner/astrologist (Gerry Sont), who tries to appear professional amid accelerating chaos, and Berenger’s two queens, Marguerite and Marie, his second and younger wife. From them we learn that the realm and its many people were once thriving, and references are made to a widening “crack”.
The declining state of the realm might be seen as a reference to our modern world, threatened as it is by climate change, and the decay of the old order who seem more concerned with perpetuating their own power than resolving our pressing problems. It could be that Queen Marguerite, in a once magnificent crimson dress, is the only individual present capable of taking responsibility and making decisions, but who must tolerate the patriarchal Berenger (whom we learn has murdered her family) slavering over the dewy-eyed, ever optimistic Marie in virginal white and listening to hyperbolic rants lauding his achievements.
His achievements are puzzling as Berenger seems to have all but created the universe, of which he believes himself to be the centre, and it is in meditating on this that the play arrives at its truth. From our egocentric position the universe exists for us to look at, and in that sense we are rulers of all that we can see because we are seeing it. Aging brings an unwelcome correction to this view, as we realise increasingly that our power to exert influence over the world around us begins to wane. The world seems less rather than more familiar: it is seen as in a decline and nothing is as it used to be – not even the heaters.
In speaking of death as a departure from life, it is implied that we are still somehow pro-active, taking our leave of it. However, as it is so movingly portrayed in Exit the King our death is the moment that life leaves us. Berenger’s entourage leaves one by one, apologetic, regretful but in obedience to an inexplicable force. Only Marguerite remains after his world has vanished, encouraging and cajoling him, teaching him how to take the first tremulous steps into death, then she too has gone. In this sense, Berenger’s death is the death of everything he has seen and been.
In Anna Jahjah’s subtle but often brutally funny production, Ionesco’s familiar mixture of farce and the tragic is fully acknowledged but there is also a lovely element of the lyrical that lifts the spirits as the performance fades away into the stars rather than ends. We have plenty to consider, our own deaths which we would probably rather not, and to what extent we can live in a more generous way.
Once again Théâtre Excentrique has given us a deeply thoughtful performance chosen with an eye to the treasures of the past, their relevance to the present and their importance to the future. Jahjah is well supported by her crew of creatives and by the commitment of the talented cast to her vision.