After four hundred years King Berenger’s kingdom is crumbling. He is no longer nature’s master, his armies have deserted, and his doctor predicts his death imminently in an hour and a half. In Megan Wilding’s imagination, the king isn’t merely Eugene Ionesco’s belligerent every man, but the end of the world as we know it and an opportunity for someone new.
The design of this production jumps off the stage for an ultra atmospheric mash-up experience. Veronique Benett’s set design with swathes of aluminium keeping the creeping natural world out and slashes of spray paint combined with costuming by Aleisa Jelbart with clashing colours, athleisure logos, and smeary clown makeup place the crumbling kingdom within an extraterrestrial hip-hop arts and crafts aesthetic. It’s campy, fun, unexpected, and, most importantly, interesting to look at. The technical design with lighting by Alexander Berlage and sound composition and design from Ben Pierpoint also played into the over-the-top excessive meta-performance with pop songs reinvented for recorder and quick detours into red-washed seduction chambers punctuating the otherwise linear narrative.
Ionesco’s script, despite its non-sequiturs and supernatural situations, is a more straight-forward story of King Berenger (Jonny Hawkins) and the slow shrivelling of his power as he approaches his death. On one side are his loyal servants (Toby Blome and Emma O’Sullivan) and his second wife Queen Marie (Dalara Williams) who are happy to perpetuate the King’s delusions for their own interests and on the other side are his ill-treated first wife Queen Marguerite (Shakira Clanton) and his doctor (Rob Johnson) who are equally happy to usher Berenger quickly out the door. It’s an easy situation to map onto reality: an incapable tyrant desperately clinging to his failing position while the plebes fight for scraps (see the British Royal Family, Donal Trump, even our local Scott Morrison, etc). Under Wilding’s control, though, the script takes on a wider scope and implicates the institutions and systems that keep dangerous individuals in power and the rest of us suffering.
The performances were excellent from the snivelling Elton John manchild of Hawkins’s King Berenger to the selfish trophy wife of Williams’s Queen Marie, the characterisations were fractured and discomforting. Johnson and Clanton formed an intriguing pairing for the unpredictable oddity of the doctor and Queen Marguerite’s unwavering determination. Blome and O’Sullivan should be explicitly commended for their hilarious “background” presences as neither slipped out of character even while standing watch or dusting for long periods of time. This attention to detail in Wilding’s direction is what made the production feel immense and cavernous because there was no moment unconsidered or an element under-utilised. And the cast carried it off with ease, particularly Hawkins and Clanton who stand as heavy-weights of the independent stage and who presented expertly controlled opposing pillars in a sprawling script.
In the final moments, King Berenger has lost his powers, his sight, and everyone around him save the voice of Queen Marguerite guiding him to the end. Finally, Marguerite takes the opportunity to shed the accessories and glittery accoutrements, letting her speech relax into broader vowels while she prepares the throne room, the last reminder of Berenger’s reign, for a roaring blaze. Here Wilding places a clear image in front of audiences; both the return of the old order and a new way of doing things around here. In this way Wilding establishes herself as a director with a powerful theatrical vision that is committed to the possibilities of art to reawaken, reimagine, and reinvent.
Exit the King is running at Kings Cross Theatre from March 20th – April 10th
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