Long lives the king, it turns out — two hours and 15 minutes of pratfalls and pathos. As artfully executed by "Shine" Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, the death scene of Eugene Ionesco's mad old monarch goes into over-the-top overtime, railing, flailing, falling down, stammering, strutting, posturing, anything to keep from leaving the stage — and life.
It's the Australian's first appearance on Broadway. He chose for his primary queen is a good-luck charm — Susan Sarandon, who, as Best Actress of 1995, handed him his Oscar as Best Actor of 1996. Their only other brush was in the 2002 movie, "The Banger Sisters," in which she struck him with her car. But they became fast friends, and he personally wrote her, inviting her to come aboard as his queen.
He did other writing — pretty much his own ticket to Broadway — co-translating with his director, Neil Armfield, Ionesco's manic antic from the original French and giving it contemporary tweaks. Thing is, Politics of the Absurd has caught up (if not overtaken) Theatre of the Absurd, making Ionesco's madcap capers seem reasonable. In its story of a once-powerful nation reduced to ruins by the ego and ignorance of its ruler, it's not hard to find a Bush Rush running around on stage.
At the Sardi's party that followed the play, Armfield enlarged the target sites beyond George W. to include John Howard and Tony Blair, former prime ministers of Australia and Great Britain. "There's such exhaustion in the world that these people have led us to," Armfield admitted. "Like, Susan has that line '. . . not to mention all the disastrous wars that we've been taken into.' I think that was one of the reasons Susan wanted to play this part. She has been so outraged by the continuing kind of descent through the involvement in Iraq. This has allowed the opportunity to give vivid expression to that exhaustion and outrage."
Another sign of modern times is a line involving the palace washing machine. "That's pure Ionesco: Literally, 'we had to pawn it for the state loan,' so clearly it's a state of trouble. We translated that to 'We had to pawn it for the treasury bailout.' In rehearsal, Susan said, 'I think treasury bailout might be a little too direct. It sounds like we're talking exactly about the kind of problem we have now. Can I change it to 'to bail out the treasury'? and I said, 'Sure.' We did five previews, and it always got a laugh, and I said, 'Just try it the other way.' And she did, and the audience roared. It's that strange thing of rhythm. It's the same idea, but it suddenly hits the right rhythm for the joke."
In a season when much is being made about cutting intermissions, Armfield added one, possibly to give the cast a chance to regroup after the strenuous workout of Act I. "Ionesco wrote it as a one-act play as one continuous sweep, and we considered doing it that way. Geoffrey and I argued about it. My instinct was that it should be one act, but I said, 'But if we do make it two acts, there is a line that Ionesco cut — because we knew what he cut and what he kept — which occurred halfway through the show where he said, 'We're not quite ready. We're not quite there yet, but we know where we're heading.' It seemed like a perfect curtain line so we brought that back in."
Armfield and Rush have been artistic collaborators since 1981. "We haven't counted, but we think we've done about 30 projects together. We've done three other shows where we did the translation, and then we worked on this, and it has been developing all the way through rehearsals up until tonight. I think it was the brazen theatricality that drew us to Exit the King. We read it, and it made us laugh — and the fact that it was throbbing with resonance to the world that we're living in made it quite an urgent play to do."
Rush remembers, as an 11-year-old, the Doomsday clouds that hovered over the world in October of 1962 when Ionesco wrote the play. "He was writing about the Bay of Pigs and the potential holocaust that was there then, and it just seemed so attuned to the nervous energy that we're reading about in our daily newspapers."
The actor attacks his role with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of physical comedy. "I only do it on stage — I would never try that in my own sitting room," he laughed. "There's a great clue in Ionesco's script where he just says, 'The king keeps falling over,' and I thought, 'This is one of the key images for all the great philosophical and ecological and spiritual and burlesque routines that he writes into the play.' The fact that the king is physically unstable, I think, is a terribly interesting clown idea.
"I had a really fantastic time, but last night — at the end of the two shows, the Wednesday matinee and the evening — I had almost zero voice. My vocal chords were just at their tested limits, but I looked after myself and went off to an acupuncturist."
According her Playbill bio, this is Sarandon's first Broadway outing in 37 years when she was in An Evening With Richard Nixon and . . . , essaying seven different roles (among them Tricia Nixon, Martha Mitchell and Jessamyn West). She did appear in the play Extremities, memorably fending off a male attacker, "but that was Off-Broadway, and there wasn't so much pressure."
Stage acting, she said, didn't come back to her easily. "Also, it was just so extreme and really a character that's not anything like me. It was a very different type of performance, and the presentation of it was so theatrical, so complicated. I've done so many small-cast, naturalistic things, and I didn't realize going out of my comfort zone how uncomfortable it would actually be. It was very trying. The stage now seems hugely different because in 1972 nobody knew who I was so I wasn't risking anything. So my own ego made it difficult for me this time. It's terrifying, terrifying."
[flipbook] Then, what lured her back to the stage? "I just loved the play. Geoffrey sent it to me, with a really lovely letter, and I was naïve enough not to understand exactly what it meant if I did it, but I loved the play, and I just thought, 'Well, my kids are older. I can spend a little time on weekends away from them. That was always a problem when they were small.' It just seemed like something very unusual." She plays Marguerite, the older of the king's two queens and a crabby life-companion that doesn't soften till the play's closing moments when she ushers him into the hereafter. "She has an interesting arc. It's very clear what Geoffrey doesn't want, and what everyone else wants, but my character is kinda like the narrator in Our Town or something. You don't understand till the very end of the play what's really been going on with her at the beginning of the play. For me — who's a very touchy, feely kind of emotional person — for me to be so withdrawn and cold is strange. I think she probably is the other queen to begin with, and then 200 years later after she has been with this guy, she understands there's no place for sentimental love. She's helping him have his dignity. Sometimes you have to be tough."
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