Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 20 – Apr 10, 2021
Playwright: Eugène Ionesco
Director: Megan Wilding
Cast: Toby Blome, Shakira Clanton, Jonny Hawkins, Rob Johnson, Emma O’Sullivan, Dalara Williams
Images by Robert Catto
The King has ruled for hundreds of years, but it is now time to retire. His body is failing, as well as his mind, and even though the will remains strong, there is no turning back. The end is nigh in Eugène Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist Exit the King, although it gradually becomes clear that it is in fact, a new beginning that the people really need. It is a timeless tale, an appealing lament that addresses our seemingly ever present desire for institutional change, and for better government.
Ionesco’s writing however, offers the viewer more than an enjoyable narrative. His work goes on endless tangents, often contradictory and deliberately obtuse, but when in the hands of the right creators, a rare form of theatrical magic is delivered. Director Megan Wilding revels in the mischievous and unpredictable qualities of the script, taking care to marry comedy with meaning, for a show that has us engaged on multiple levels, simultaneously. Wilding’s take on Exit the King is often very funny, but even more admirable, is her ability to keep our intellect keenly stimulated through all its jokes.
A highly amusing team of performers, is headed by Jonny Hawkins, who gives a thrilling depiction of King Berenger, the decrepit has-been determined to outstay his welcome. Incredibly nuanced, endlessly imaginative and brimming with generosity, watching the fierce talents of Hawkins in action, is pure inspiration. The divine Shakira Clanton plays a strong, imposing Queen Marguerite, making her support character rumble with danger, whether or not she is positioned centre stage. The devastating drama between a white king and a Black queen, is the immutable focal point of the show, no matter what shenanigans are thrown our way. All other actors in the piece are equal parts idiosyncratic and inventive, working with extraordinary cohesiveness for something that seriously satisfies.
The production is energised by Alexander Berlage’s lighting design, dynamic at every turn, as is Ben Pierpoint’s work on sound and music, reliably enhancing all the wonderful activity taking place on stage. Veronique Bennett transforms the space into a Warhol Factory, silver surfaces everywhere for a set that perhaps evokes flashbacks of facile rulers throughout history, who had done more harm than good for their peoples. The pop aesthetic is extended into costuming by Aleisa Jelbart, very au courant and very tongue-in-cheek.
There is likely no dignified way to overthrow a government, but in Exit the King, the fantasy of nature taking charge, intervening to simply kill off the problem, is certainly enticing. The truth is that although individuals who hold power do die away, structures will sustain themselves, and it appears that the more malevolent those systems, the more likely they will persist. The Black queen waits patiently for her white king to die, and in Ionesco’s fiction, her strategy proves successful. Real life however permits no passivity should we want the pale, male and stale to abdicate. There is a fight underway, and those invested, have no luxury of waiting.