Like a lukewarm cup of coffee from a café down the street that you’ve walked past but never entered, Theatre Excentrique’s production of Ionesco’s Exit the King gives you slightly less than you hope for; however, a greater understanding of the play’s ethos and Ionesco as a playwright can redeem it – if you actually know (or bother) to learn these.
The play, on face value, is fairly simple: King Berenger (Leof Kingsford-Smith) struggles with the inevitability of death, much to the chagrin of his first wife Marguerite (Kirsty Jordan), second wife Marie (Clay Crighton), his doctor (Gerry Sont), his guard (Jossef Schneider) and his maid (Alison Windsor). He spends much of the 90-minute show moping, complaining, lamenting and various other -ings, refusing to accept his fate like a punter at a TAB who scans his worthless ticket 10 times just to make sure his horse actually did come dead last.
Yet, a quick Google debunks this alleged simplicity (not the punting bit). The 3rd of 4 plays in Ionesco’s ‘Berenger cycle’, Berenger appears as a Blackadder-esque character; maintaining his same ‘-ing-isms’ in a completely different time, place and situation. Allegedly (I mean, Wikipedia’s trustworthy right?), in this play he is an embodiment of all us as we face death, characterising our own fears about not wanting to die. Marguerite is Death, an ever-present but ultimately welcomed persona. Marie, by contrast, is life itself; pure and innocent, but naive. The guard is our ego, the doctor somehow both our science and superstition, and the maid, even more weirdly, our autoimmune systems. Hey, don’t ask me.
In this performance, it’s hard to know the extent of the depth that Director Anna Jahjah is going for. With or without this knowledge, the cast occasionally make the performance drag out with a series of long, underwhelming monologues and the delivery of jokes that don’t quite seem to land. Whilst the subsequent internally-asked question of ‘Why am I watching this?’ is heard loud and clear in one’s mind, satisfy Ionesco’s absurdist roots, the more intricate questions about life and human fragility could go amiss if you’re not experienced. Sont, even with the dual symbolic role his character adopts, stands out amongst the cast – the control he has over his part makes him a dependable supporting actor and highly watchable in his own right. Schneider, though stuck with the same repetitive dialogue, has an enjoyable stage presence, and with more time spent understanding how to make one’s character one’s own (as opposed to just an extra body on stage) he should become a fine actor. Windsor could also benefit from that message. One doesn’t quite get enough of the contrast between Crighton and Jordan; undoubtedly the show’s best-dressed (sorry Schneider), courtesy of Barbara Cohen, both could go further to make me truly believe what they’re doing and saying (particularly Crighton). It is worth noting, however, Jordan’s substantial development as the play goes on; her final moments on stage, coupled with her consistent breaking of the fourth wall and metatheatrical dialogue, are some of the show’s best. Finally, Kingsford-Smith (the man, not the airport) also suffers these believability issues, giving the show’s most tumultuous performance. I ultimately accept his acceptance of death, but begrudgingly acquiesce to his previous 88 minutes of on-and-off comedic timing and drawn-out dramatic action.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the brief inclusion of technology in the performance. Jahjah’s direction of Kingsford-Smith, who takes a phone held by Schneider and delivers a live monologue to the phone that can be seen both before us and on an upstage projection in real time, was extremely well executed. Seeing (many) shows that have tried and failed at that sort of thing, the precision, technical expertise, and flawlessness of that 5-minute moment makes me hope other theatre companies take note. Very well done. Also, to see a man over the age of 50 operate an iPhone without needing his grandkids for direction was equally spectacular.
Ultimately, if you’re an Ionesco type of person, apply your knowledge of him to this performance and you’ll get something out of it. However, if you take Ionesco to be an Aldi rip-off of Nescafe, there might not be as much to see this time around.