A nation is falling apart. The environment is shot. Multiple wars are being lost. And yet a long-serving leader refuses to acknowledge any of these circumstances as serious matters that require attention.
Sound familiar? Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush thought so when, two years ago, he took on the title role in Eugene Ionesco's seldom-seen, 1962 absurdist farce Exit the King in Melbourne and Sydney. "When we were doing it in 2007, we had three tired, moribund governments in the English-speaking world, and that's very much one of the key points of the play," says Rush, who is currently making his Broadway debut in the work. "The play itself, this is its moment more than any other point since 1962. You can imagine that, in the shadow of the Bomb, the play had a particular resonance in that era of absurdist writing."
Rush has more invested in this production than a performance. He and director and frequent collaborator Neil Armfield also co-authored the translation. According to the actor, when he first sought out the play more than a decade ago, there was only one extant English translation, which he felt was good, but "very anglicized." Armfield and Rush had previously worked together on a string of translated plays, including works by Gogol and Beaumarchais. "We discovered that a lot of plays in translation had been filtered through theatrical or academic traditions in the U.K., and more often than not they were 40 or 50 years old. The flavor of the language had become musty."
The two men labored to give Ionesco's language a fresh, contemporary phrasing. Still, Rush insists that he has taken liberties with a mere "1.4 percent" of the text, and that the translation is "otherwise faithful." His instincts as an actor led him to search out Exit the King, which has been seen on Broadway only once before, in 1968, in a production starring Richard Easton as King Berenger and Eva Le Gallienne as his heartless, humorless queen, Marguerite (played these days by Susan Sarandon, another Oscar winner making a Broadway debut). "I read somewhere that Alec Guinness had done it. So I hunted it down, because I always thought Guinness was a wonderful picker of unusual, transformative sorts of parts."
What he found in the onetime Guinness vehicle was a farcical–tragical, highly ridiculous and intentionally symbolic story of a vainglorious monarch who, after hundreds of years ruling a nation — now disintegrating before his eyes — refuses to believe that the Grim Reaper has finally called his number. Protesting more strenuously (and more childishly) than a tyke resisting a trip to the dentist, he argues, marches, prances, falls, gets up, commands, prevaricates and generally goes through more phases of death denial than Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Coaxing him not so gently into that good night are Marguerite and a brutally honest doctor (William Sadler), while Berenger's second queen, Marie (Lauren Ambrose), and Juliette (Andrea Martin), a servant, encourage him to fight fate.
Ionesco — whose best known works include The Bald Soprano, The Chairs and Rhinoceros — is said to have written the work while he himself was ill and filled with the fear of death. Rush initially wondered whether the 47-year-old text would play well on stage. "There were great slabs of it in which I thought, 'Oh, is this going to be too static?' On the immediate read, you get all the political and spiritual and ecological edge. What you don't get is the giddy whirlwind of burlesque slapstick that's hidden inside the play."
Rush — who studied mime and pantomime in Paris at the famous Jacques Lecoq theatre school — made the most of those clownish aspects of the character. "Ionesco says in the stage notes this should be played like a tragic Guignol, like a sort of crazed puppet piece," says Rush. "We thought this play is spinning in the orbit of very weird intellectual farce. There is a kind of giddiness in the language. Five times in Act One, I defy the laws of nature. Then they finally get him into the wheelchair and he has another five resurrections in the second act.
"If you get this working, it will be like a time bomb going off."