We can no longer depend on real estate maintaining its value, jobs for life for lawyers, bankers and doctors or the sunshine in summer, but we ARE going to die.
Not many of us wait more than four centuries for our mortal coil to run its span, but that’s what has happened to King Berenger, the central figure in Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 play Exit the King, which comes to Bath’s Ustinov Studio in a sparkling new translation by Jeremy Sams.
This is the last of a super season of black comedies at the theatre, and brings Alun Armstrong and Siobhan Redmond to the city until 20th December in Ustinov artistic director Laurence Boswell’s mesmerising production.
The fateful day has dawned. Berenger’s kingdom has shrunk beyond comprehension. Those who have not been dispatched by the doctor or “let go” by the king have fled.
The heavens are in uproar, the castle is cracking open and the rivers are swallowing the remaining ministers. And the king’s first, and abandoned, wife, Queen Marguerite, knows that Berenger has only hours to live, in spite of the best sensual endeavours of her replacement, Queen Marie.
Ionesco was known for Theatre of the Absurd, and his influences are very evidently French, but this is a play for all places and times, full of blinding insights, irreverent asides, witty truisms and poetic flights of fancy.
Alun Armstrong as the self-absorbed and irascible king manages the 90 minute descent into the inevitable with touching majesty, while the witchlike Redmond takes him on the journey with a wry but loving hand.
William Gaunt, who spent his early days as a rep actor in Bath, is the ambiguous doctor/executioner.
It’s a powerful piece and one that exerts a strange magnetism over the audience, drawn like voyeurs around the deathbed of the once great king.
Photographs by Simon Anand