This classic absurdist black comedy by Ionesco is brought to the stage in a new version by Patrick Marber, and covers the last hour in the life of King Berenger (Rhys Ifans), who has devoted his life to pleasure and presided over the destruction of his kingdom to the point that some of them are liquifying where they stand, and his ministers drown in a distant river during the span of the play.
He has been a cruel, unthinking tyrant to his people, and now, in his fifth century, it is time for him to die. No longer can he command the weather, his palace is cracking apart, and there is darkness across the land.
The only survivors at court are his two wives, sensible Marguerite (Indira Varma) and flighty Marie (Amy Morgan), who flank the King’s opulent throne with smaller ones of their own, a palace Guard (Derek Griffiths), a cleaning woman straight out of Acorn Antiques (Debra Gillett), and a Doctor who also doubles as court executioner in the manner of a jovial Mengele – smiling as he tortures and torments.
Ifans is reminiscent of a blend of Spike Milligan and Lindsay Kemp in his wig and white face, a clown without a joke, a pathetic figure with visions of grandeur and divine right, and Anthony Ward’s design makes the most of the Olivier’s space and the famed drum revolve, with a hint of the old Pepper’s ghost trickery when it matters most.
A wickedly funny and unexpectedly moving piece of theatre, expertly directed by Marber and paced with comic touches (the small lecture theatre table that folds out of the King’s throne, the cupboard in the palace walls full of sweepers and brushes), this is a competent revival which deserves celebration.