Geoffrey Rush strides straight through the performance space at the Belvoir Theatre, the epitome of military hauteur. He returns a short time later, an aging monarch overseeing the last remaining days of his tattered regime. Flunkies flunk and wives fuss, imperiousness is everywhere and his personal physician has given up hope. The set shows struts holding up the crumbling palace walls. My second Ionesco play comes forty years after the first , a production of The Chairs starring Max Gillies in my first week at University. We’re all getting old so this arrives just in time for a quick morale boost. Everything is connected.
Rush and Neil Armfield have been working on their translation of Ionesco’s Exit The King for years we are led to believe. Whatever the length of its genesis, its timing in a full-throttle production at Belvoir is exquisite, coming as it does as we enter the last dark days of our own tatty ruling elite. Given the timing it’s almost impossible not to see the play through the prism of John Howard’s coming downfall. It’s all there in the first half of the play, the much better half, (before the elevated thespian histrionics take over and there is a somewhat sluggish prolonged, attempt at gravitas.)
Before intermission we are treated to a cruelly funny depiction of the tyrant fading away – the fits, the temper, the expressions of wonderment that everyone could be so ungrateful. It all has a familiar ring and makes the jokes just that much more thrilling. Rush knows it. He plays up for all he’s worth and he has this brilliant set of supports – Bille Brown, Gillian Jones and the divine Rebecca Massey.
The theatre was full on a Tuesday night and they clapped and cheered and laughed endlessly. Deservedly so, for it was a wonderful night that did much to reinforce every prejudice, or insight, about petty tyrants and their blubbing ways as the end draws nigh.