“Words and thoughts are just as important as deeds”
Though Ibsen is reputed to have described Emperor and Galilean as his ‘major work’ which took nine years to complete, it has never previously been staged in English and little is known about it given how often his other works are revived. This may well be because it was not actually written for the stage but to be read, consequently the original epic spreads over ten acts and is allegedly over eight hours long. Never one to shirk a challenge though, the National Theatre commissioned a new adaptation by Ben Power which condenses it down to about 3 hours 20 minutes yet still employs over 50 performers to bring this version of Ibsen’s epic to life. This was a preview performance on Monday 13th June.
The play spans 351 to 363AD, following the life of Julian, nephew of the Roman emperor, an intelligent erudite man even from his teenage days which were spent exploring his faith and studying the Bible with his friends. But chafing against the constraints of the imperial household which isn’t altogether sympathetic to his existence, he escapes to a carefree existence in Athens where he is seduced by the exotic lure of the worship of the ancient pagan Gods. His eventual rise to Holy Roman Emperor thus saw him try to abolish Christianity as the state religion and replace it Paganism, returning back to the values of old, but conflating his own personal struggle with faith with the trials of ruling a fading empire is an awful lot for one man to take on.
And indeed the role of Julian is an awful lot to take on, it is a monster of a role and Andrew Scott is hardly off the stage at all for the entire show as the tortured intellectual thrust into a position of huge power, but unable to remould the world back as he would like, due to the fervent determination of the early Christians roused by the attack on their new position. Scott rises to the challenge admirably with a complex performance of great stamina, fully embracing the charismatic passion, intense fervour and blinkered drive of this tragic figure: he also rocks the most amazing gold coat which I totally covet. There’s a real sense of Scott’s impressive growth into a more nuanced actor here, he still has the recognisable notes that I’ve come to really appreciate but there’s an added depth here: the anguish on his face as best friend Peter begs him to abandon his path of warfare and return to a simple life in the mountains followed by the quick snap into harsh dismissiveness was just one of several goose-bumpy moments.
But as befits epic-scale National Theatre productions, there’s a supporting cast of great strength around him. John Heffernan’s bookish Peter is excellent, a moderating influence when allowed and the only of Julian’s friends to truly understand the conflict within him; Jamie Ballard’s taciturn Gregory conversely is a friend who cannot ignore his faith and so is powerfully set against Julian later on to devastating effect; and there’s good performances too from Richard Durden as an elderly tutor and Daniel Flynn as the solid general Jovian. I wasn’t keen on James McArdle’s rather expressionless Scots monotone as Agathon and Genevieve O’Reilly’s random baring of a breast seemed a little unnecessary as Julian’s aunt turned wife driven mad by a poisoned peach. The masterstroke though is in two of the more menacing roles, both filled by actors who gave me nightmares as a kid: Ian McDiarmid’s manipulative Maximus, the Pagan mystic who holds Julian under his thrall for much of the play, is a majestically sibilant presence and Nabil Shaban’s evil Emperor Constantius (whose first arrival into the show is one of the best moments) is an inspired piece of casting – I was just grateful he didn’t cackle (see 0:25 onwards here: you have been warned).
Jonathan Kent’s direction is impressively fluid, given the vast scope of the play, and much use is made of video work by Nina Dunn in Paul Brown’s design which incorporates full use of the mobility and split levels of the Olivier’s drum. The overall feel is actually quite similar to Frankenstein in the end, with a relatively minimalist set focusing on key objets and some remarkable set-pieces, matched with a pulsing sound design, Jonathan Dove’s score making much use of martial drums. Costumes are largely modern-dress with classical touches thrown in for good measure, a clear sign that we are meant to find contemporary relevance in Ibsen’s writing and this is where things get a little bit confused.
To me, it wasn’t immensely clear what Ibsen/Power is trying to say in the final analysis. There’s exploratory attacks on the fundamentalist zeal and the attendant hypocrisy on both sides, Christian and Pagan, that leads to horrendous atrocities in the name of (the) God(s) and the corrupting nature of absolute power. But Julian’s struggle to equate his innate desire to find the right spiritual direction and the harsh necessity of maintaining political power in a world full of real enemies makes too much of him as a pure naïf, apparently blind to the reality of his position which given the modern-day context, is rather hard to swallow. The push into the war against the Persians also suffers from not quite squaring with the modernisation or indeed, being particularly interesting to be honest. Combined with the overall length, whatever is being said at any point takes a goodly while to get there, the tragic arc of our protagonist is perhaps then a little too over-extended to really pierce the heart, despite Scott’s most valiant efforts.
For a large part of the first half (which is 1 hour 50 minutes, be warned) Emperor and Galilean is highly entertaining and visually extremely arresting, the sight of so many people on a stage is a rare thing these days and very effectively employed here. The second half starts brightly with a masked orgy leading into a hippy parade but from then it becomes a bit of a slog to get to the end, though the stirring final scene pretty much redeems it. It really is a unique production, one that doesn’t feel particularly Ibsen-esque, and for his portrayal of a man blinded by his desire to do good that he can’t see the harm he is wreaking on his empire, Andrew Scott deserves vast praise and a better reaction from the audience than he got last night as he took his bow. Just be sure to go to the toilet before you take your seat!