After a seven-year absence, Geoffrey Rush returns to Sydney’s Company B — site of his long-time collaboration with helmer Neil Armfield– to star in Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King.” The absurdist play about the despotic ruler of a crumbling kingdom who learns he has just 90 minutes to live is a fine vehicle for the topsy-turvy, mayhem-loving clown in Rush. The thesp is in great shape, displaying a physical elasticity honed at Jacques Lecoq’s international theater school in Paris, in a production that’s triumphant on many levels.
Rush shines in what’s ostensibly ensemble piece. But, oddly for a production that has already played a season at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theater, the cast isn’t totally in sync.
Bille Brown, a veteran Rush collaborator from their years at the Queensland Theater Company, is under-utilized in the role of the king’s doctor, and seems resigned to wallowing along the sidelines. While Julie Forsyth chews up the stage as the madcap maid, matching Rush’s vitality, Gillian Jones falters as the king’s first wife, Queen Marguerite.
Armfield and Rush’s collaborations have spanned Shakespeare, Chekhov, Gogol, Beaumarchais and Nobel-winning Australian writer Patrick White. The artistic team’s adaptation of “Exit the King,” though accessible, is not particularly potent. Given the story’s obvious parallels in Australian politics — aging Prime Minister John Howard has reneged on numerous promises to vacate the top job to his treasurer, clinging to power despite downward approval ratings — the production misses an opportunity to score in a national election year.
Rush’s greatest achievement in “Exit the King” is maintaining momentum through the second act as the king’s deteriorating health increasingly limits his expressions. In another actor’s hands, Ionesco’s despotic monarch might have struggled to retain the audience’s interest.