A long time in dying

 

Those of you unfamiliar with the work of Eugene Ionesco, or any absurdist theatre, are in for a big surprise should you choose to see a shibboleth of the genre, Exit the King (National Theatre). Rhys Ifans, who recently gave us one of the best Scrooge’s at the Old Vic, must have mixed feelings having taken on the role of King Berenger the First, a monarch who has ruled for more than four centuries. His country is spiralling downwards fast and the 483 year-old king has to finally confront his own death, which considering he’s been around for so long is no great surprise. That said the kingdom is made up of playing card characters, the genetics of a plastic existence perhaps allowing for long life as well as instigating madness and capriciousness. The Mad Hatter and his lot are bonkers but this lot ace even them.

 

The central theme of the play has a profound message for although talking about dying is no longer taboo, the willingness to really engage with our mortality remains a struggle. Yet it is the one undeniable fact of life (taxes too) and perhaps Ionesco is telling us, in his own inimitable way, that we should face up to that ultimate loss before it becomes yet another ephemeral blip in our human existence. Ifans is compelling in a portrayal which highlights everything that we fear. He begins with an assuredness that is comically contradicted by his huge crown, blue pyjamas and preposterous make up. That facade is short lived and soon he becomes old and decrepit, losing his faculties, self-respect and, in that final hour, which is how long he has left, he descends into a wailing mess, a wheelchair providing the final indignity.

 

When he asks “How do you die?”, the temptation is to cry out “Quickly” for although this is a short play (100 minutes without interval) the playwright fills it with far too much unintelligible and irrelevant detail, not helped by Patrick Marber’s clunky direction which intermittently had a soporific effect. In a complete surprise and something that shocked me out of my slumber was a final scene coup de théâtre when Anthony Ward’s regally imperialist set, dominated by the emblem of an eagle, implodes as though swallowed up by a sink hole. Yet another metaphor, underlining an already overly signposted message.

 

His two wives, played by a supercilious Indira Verma and equally self-obsessed Amy Morgan, sit by the King’s side while Adrian Scarborough flits abut as the reverential Royal Doctor doing nothing in particular apart from giving those in the stalls a soaking with his childlike syringes. Debra Gillet’s housemaid epitomises the inanity stumbling about with the largest feather dusters you have ever seen, making her the envy of the OCD community, reaching parts other dusters cannot.

 

A paradoxical play, an uneven production and a central performance that almost lifts it to a place of understanding and enjoyment, thus saving it from dying a death.

 

Meanwhile Giovanni Bigelow witnesses a master at work…

 

I would hate to act opposite Mark Rylance in a Shakespearian play. He speaks the language as though he is having a chat with a mate. Coming back to the Globe to play Iago in Othello is a bit of a homecoming, he was previously artistic director, and now his wife Claire Van Kampen is directing. I cant remember laughing so much during a production of this particular play,  Gilbert & Sullivan’s policeman from Pirates of Penzance would have slotted in well.  The first act cantered along with all the silliness but the real drama came in act II, especially the final scenes.

 

The costumes are like Shakespeare meets Flash Gordon.. Odd but fun and in keeping with the farcical nature of it all. The engaging André Holland holds his own as the Moor Othello and his interplay with Rylance – whom Holland greatly admires, “I stalked him for years” – is telling. The contrast between a prurient, jealous, bigoted and strangely more prosaically clad Iago in comparison to the Moor who has the look of a man with sporting prowess and an equally agile mind. The supporting cast are also very good with Sheila Atim fantastic as Emilia.

 

As the play nears that horrible denouement and Iago, no longer the wonky fool and far more the twisted tormentor, shows his true colours it becomes abundantly clear how so much of what is laughable is in fact a pernicious veneer for hatred and cruelty.

 

Finally, Fanoulla Fizarou hears classical music like never before…

 

The Proms 2018 season continues to serve up an eclectic programme. Prom 18 (Royal Albert Hall) was such an event. Multi-talented Greek-Russian conductor, Teodor Currentzis, makes an entrance in tune with his thespian background, and proceeds to light up the Royal Albert Hall with versions of Beethoven’s Second and Fifth Symphonies, the like of which I have never heard before.

 

They were definitely the work of the great composer but somehow Currentzis and the musicians of Music Aeterna gave us something extra, more akin to a dramatic interpretation. The opening of the 2nd Symphony did not prepare you for what followed. Slow slow slow and then fast, faster to rapid. The musicianship was extraordinary, technically brilliant and clear despite the tempo. I’ve always thought that this piece was underrated and the interpretation took it to another level for me. The 5th Symphony on the other hand is better known and yet again the Currentzis magic brought out an inspirational solo and ensemble playing.

 

And yet…despite all the previous brilliance I was blown away by the encore, the finale of the 7th Symphony, magical and ethereal that included gorgeously contrasting passages from the sublime to the euphoric. At one point Currentzis quits conducting. The musicians stand and continue playing. A titanic moment and a totemic event. More please.

 

Exit The King –020 7452 3000

Othello – 020 7401 9919

Proms 2018 – www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Barney Efthimiou

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