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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Emperor and Galilean at The National, Olivier Theatre

You probably haven’t heard of the play ‘Emperor and Galilean’... I hadn’t before I booked tickets a few months ago. This epic historical drama by Henrik Ibsen was written between 1868 and 1873 and was described by the playwright as his most important work, and yet very little is known of it. In fact the National are the first to take on the brave task of staging it in English.

The play instantly poses many tricky challenges: the original work comes in the form of two plays, consists of ten acts lasting over eight hours in total and the drama takes place over dozens of years and spans thousands of miles of land. The National commissioned Ben Power to write a new adaptation of the piece. Power overcomes all these tests in his engaging adaptation, condensing down Ibsen’s masterpiece into a more manageable three hour performance.

The drama follows the life of Julian, ruler of the Roman Empire from AD361-363. As the nephew of the Roman Emperor Constantius he is under constant restraints in Constantinople. An intelligent young man he is desperate to escape and explore, and when his older brother, Gallus is assigned the role of Caesar, Julian is free to go to Athens. Discovering the allure of worshipping ancient pagan gods, Julian leaves behind belief in Christianity, and consequently his devoted friends too. Personally he struggles constantly with the Christian-Pagan debate, seeking advice and approval fromthe elderly Maximus. Eventually he is crowned Emperor, abolishing Christianity in flavour of Paganism.

It certainly is a tour de force – a cast of over 50, and at least 10 scene changes it is quite a sight to behold. Jonathan Kent has done a brilliant job directing this play, presenting us with a performance that is fluid and imaginative and surprisingly easy to understand. In fact this version of ‘Emperor and Galilean’ is not even very Ibsen-esque, and I enjoyed it a great deal more than I expected to.

Andrew Scott takes on the vast role of Julian and is on stage almost non-stop for the whole performance. The emotional energy he brings to the role is impressive - he gives a passionate and intense depiction that is needed to make such a complex character convincing. Also admirable is his ability to transform and mature so effectively, growing from the pale scrawny teenager, to a great Emperor decades later. Brilliant too is the interaction between Julian and his three friends, his genuine anguish when he decides to leave them is terribly moving and affecting. There is strong support for Scott from the rest of the cast: Nabil Shaban as the cruel Emperor Constantius, and Ian McDiarmid as a menacingly persuasive Maximus. John Heffernan as Peter and Jamie Ballard as Gregory both provided some light against Andrew Scott’s shade, as two kind but feeble friends of Julian. Not every actor was to my taste though. James McArdle was irritatingly limp and monotone as preacher Agathon and Genevieve O’Reilly was ridiculous as Helena, the quiet girl who, after eating a poisoned peach, rips her clothes off and wriths insanely across the stage.

It is a deeply poignant play, and Power’s version only emphasises this more, highlighting the powerful man’s struggle with himself and his beliefs. A few stunning performances and some awesome visuals create an overwhelming performance that deserves a large round of applause at final curtain call - certainly more than my audience gave it, who pathetically seemed to be half asleep by the end.

Emperor and Galilean continues until 10 August 2011, book here.

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