Sunday, June 19, 2011

Theatre Review : Emperor and Galilean by Henrik Ibsen - Olivier Theatre (dir Jonathan Kent 13/6/11)

The Olivier Theatre is the best theatrical space in Britain, the thrust stage bringing the audience up close to the performers, the sightlines perfect (except from the very back) and the hydraulic revolving stage allowing directors and designers tremendous flexibitity in how they present large-scale dramas. Seldom have I seen it used to better effect than Jonathan Kent's creation of the Roman Empire from glittery Constantinople to darkest Gaul in this striking production of Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean.

Apparently, this is the first time that this sprawling historical drama has been produced on the British stage, Ibsen's original Closet Drama (i.e. having not been written reading and not for performing) about the life of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate having been trimmed from a mighty eight hours to much more manageable three and a half. But three and a half hours is a long time to sit in the theatre if the play is a duffer - after all, there must be a reason why it has not been performed over all these years. However, there was no reason to worry. Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown were not going to stint on any opportunity to maximise the spectacle on show as the drama moved from the Christian Court of the Emperor Constantius to sacrifices to the gods in Ephesus to the final battle in the Persian Desert.

The play is frighteningly topical. It is an examination of the nature of faith and freedom in the context of State power. Emperor Constantius (Nabil Shaban) has a tenuous grip on a newly Christian Empire, and keeps his nephew Julian (Andrew Scott) under close suveillance. Julian has doubts about his Christian faith, which are confirmed by the pagan priest Maximus (Ian McDiarmid). When the Roman Legions overthrow Constantius and propel Julian to the Imperial throne, he promises a return to the pagan religion whilst tolerating Christianity. However the corrupting nature of power corrodes these ideals, and soon the Christians of Antioch are being subject to persecution. Having been told by Maximus that he will fall on the field of Mars which is in Rome, Julian becomes convinced of his infallibility and invades Iraq. Needless to say, tragedy ensues.

Ibsen refers to this play as his most important work, and one can sense glimpses of his conception of the nature of individual freedom, however the play does not articulate these clearly. Having not read the full script I cannot say if this is a shortcoming on the part of Ibsen or Ben Power who made the adaptation. In fact towards the end, the play sounds like a paean for the Christian faith which I don't think was Ibsen's intention at all. It is structured as a tragedy, but in comparison with Shakespeare's great historical plays (think a combination Richard II's idealism with Richard III's megalomania) the characterisation of Julian falls a long way short, and the tragic denouement is weak.

However, this does not detract from a spectacular theatrical experience. Andrew Scott brings power and presence to Julian and Nabil Shaban is a striking Constantius. The staging is dramatic, beautifully designed with striking use of music, metal and fire. It's difficult to depict pagan celebrations without resorting to cliched cavorting, but the powerful scene where the Roman Army persecutes the Christian villagers in Syrian Antioch had a contemporary resonance which Jonathan Kent could not have foreseen. As the production ended, I was surprised that the audience reaction was somewhat muted. On the contrary, I felt that Jonathan Kent, Ben Power and Andrew Scott had triumphed in making a spectacular, accessible and thought-provoking evening with such difficult material.

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