Theatrencore’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King, in an English version by Donald Watson (St James Cavalier), is an extraordinary play.
It was a pleasure to watch Attard playing a great role with its speeches of dramatic gravity- Paul Xuereb
It is unique in Ionesco’s oeuvre, since from a technical point of view there is little about it that places it among the plays of the absurd made so famous at one time by Ionesco himself, though like everything he wrote the plot is coloured by his disbelief in a universe guided by God and his consequential belief in life as having no real meaning and thus being absurd.
The king of the title is called Berenger. Berenger is Ionesco’s version of Everyman, depressed and sentimental, and in Exit the King his protagonist is faced with the grave matter of his imminent death through old age and disease.
Tyrone Grima’s thoughtful production of the play begins with a giant game of chess in which the pieces are a knight, a rook, a queen and two unidentified pieces moving on a chessboard design on the stage.
The player is one Berenger (Malcolm Galea) who from his dominant position on the balcony above dictates what moves the three named pieces are to make, with the unnamed pieces making their counter-moves without being directed by a visible player.
This unfinished game shows Berenger as the mighty mover but already hints at the limits to his power at present, as the unnamed pieces, when they remove their masks turn out to be Queen Marguerite and the Doctor/Executioner whose role throughout the play is to make the king understand his predicament and accept the fact that he is about to die.
When the action proper begins, Marguerite (Monica Attard) and the Doctor (Chris Galea) discuss the delicacy and the great seriousness of the situation: the king has been diagnosed as dying, but he knows nothing of this.
This impending death is accompanied by a disastrous dissolution and crumbling of the kingdom: the palace walls reveal dangerous cracks; the kingdom’s huge frontiers have contracted to frontiers visible from the palace itself; crevasses are opening up and swallowing land, buildings and people; the population has dwindled from many millions to just one thousand, many of whom seem to be dying.
The kingdom, an extension of the once all-powerful king, is fast disappearing, and though he has not realised it yet, he himself is suffering the same process.
In his first scene with Marguerite and the Doctor he says he is fine, hale and hearty but almost immediately he develops a limp. His refusal to accept that he is ill is bolstered by Marie (Stephanie Bugeja) who, in addition to not being quite able to accept that Berenger is dying fast, loves him so much that she tries with cuddling and endearing words to stave off any possibility of Berenger’s despairing.
By the end of the act, however, he realises he is seriously ill, and ends up in a wheelchair, and the second act, with its beautifully written dialogue remarkable for its psychological perspicacity, shows Berenger going through phases of terror, rebellion against his fate and pathos.
After Marie’s final attempt to cheer him up by summoning up their joyful past, Berenger succumbs to the realism and wisdom of Marguerite, the only person at his side in the closing minutes.
Marguerite, in a scene played superbly by Attard, is here perhaps a combination of wise old wife and mother figure, as she guides him gently, almost tenderly, through the last moments of life before the king, now perfectly alone, moves with his wheelchair into the darkness. It is one of the most touching and moving scenes of any play written in any period.
Galea is a most memorable Berenger. His tall person, with his crown and darkly gleaming tunic, is at the start that of Berenger at the peak of his power and confidence, but he soon begins to change as ailments attack him, and there comes a moment when he loses his long hair and is revealed as graying.
The physical changes are depicted most cleverly in a large portrait of the king that dominates the much less than impressive throne room – the weakest thing in Grima’s production – a portrait that gradually changes from that of a teenage boy to serious and self-important young man, to middle age, to old age.
From a technical point of view, Galea should have been directed to stress more his character’s descent into the weakness and helplessness of an old man’s imminent death.
Galea is a fine comic actor, and for much of act one he subtly brings out Berenger’s faintly comical predicament as with his overweening self-confidence he fails to perceive what all the other characters as well as the audience know full well.
He never falls into grotesqueness, however, as some other fine actors I know have been apt to do when playing comedy, and this way he wins us over.
His faint smile does not disappear even when he begins to accept reality, and now it is the smile of weakening incredulity. At the end, he plays very well against Attard’s Marguerite, all passion spent. It was a pleasure to watch Attard playing again in a great role with its speeches of dramatic gravity alternating with utterances of a more realistic nature.
The other queen, the young Marie, played by Bugeja, looks good and moves well in her fine long gown and crown, but I fear she still has much to learn about diction.
The Doctor/Executioner is a grand character who knows it all and will not be contradicted. Chris Galea may not have the physical stature that would suit the part best, but his self-assuredness and faintly aggressive speech brings out the character’s core.
Mik Pisani’s Guard, part of whose job is to announce the various stages of the king’s activities, takes the mickey out of self-important minor officials, and Nadine Genovese’ s Juliette, the domestic help and only palace servant left, conveys some of the fun mixed with alarm she feels as she observes all that happens in the palace.
A piano accordion provides most of the music (Mariella Aquilina, Ann Bugeja), reminding us that Berenger is above all a man and not a king, while a small drum is heard at certain dramatic moments.