Emperor and Galilean by Henrik Ibsen – The National Theatre – Review

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Andrew Scott as Julian

On hearing this was a 3.5 hour epic play, my buttocks reeled in shock remembering the endurance that was Hamlet last year at the National. Could they go through this again, or would I be calling into work the following day complaining of a numb bum?

Please don’t expect this review to go into detail of each of the cast at 50 (some say 45 others 50, I didn’t manage to count them on the night) of them, that’s not going to happen. However top marks to Andrew Scott for coping with this role, he’s on stage for all but a few fleeting moments and carries the whole piece with great skill and hats off to him for delivering such a huge part. He also should be congratulated as I could hear him throughout, which for some of the actors I can’t say the same alas.

I’ve always wanted to see Ian McDiarmid in a play and was pleased to see him scheming as Maximus. I must admit though this character was extremely similar to his famous film role of Emperor Palpatine, even with him goading Julian to choose between Light and Darkness, I almost expected a light saber duel to follow.

I attended a NT Platform event with the director Jonathan Kent the week prior to seeing this, which was helpful. Especially his point that even though this is being hailed as Ibsen’s “masterpiece”, that means something very different in Norwegian. It actually means that this play contains all the ideas/seeds/thoughts of his other works, all in this one. Ben Power has edited the original version that would take about 8.5 hours to perform to a more manageable 3.5hrs version, and so without reading the entire version, I’m not sure if that’s a valid statement. This version seems to focus mainly on Ibsen’s views on religion and the choices an individual makes and lives with.

I really like Ibsen’s work and this is the first time this play has been put on in the UK. It’s VERY different to his others works in structure (except for Peer Gynt)

Several parts I did not like: the moment that Julian reinstates paganism to the Roman Empire, suddenly it felt like we’d been whisked off to see a production of Hair, with the cast dancing and getting their kit off, I was expecting a chorus of “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” , they didn’t go quite that far thankfully. It seemed so clichéd and a tad naff to try to show that as “paganism”. (spoiler alert – there’s another instance of  nudity in the play too)
Even more so as the programme has an article by Christopher Kelly (Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) that states, “he [Julian] encouraged charity, celibacy and asceticism”!

I was also expecting big things regarding the staging, yes the Drum is used, but I did feel it was not used to its fullest, and can someone please tell me what the lowest level was supposed to be, it looked like a dodgy butchers, is that what it was meant to be?? There were some good effects, more so in the second half, but I perhaps mistakenly was expecting more. The Olivier is a vast space to fill and even with this large cast, it did feel empty of occasions, I’m not sure how that was possible, and so I think the staging just didn’t work for this.

There’s been a great debate about the mixing of the ancient with the 21st century in the dress and projections. I really liked this, and felt it did add a contemporary feel to the story being told. Just as I had recently enjoyed with Antigone at the Sothwark Playhouse. I’m aware a great many do not agree with me there, but I think it was effective.

The themes of the play are relevant today, and Ibsen offers no glib answers, especially to the question of how do you act in a tolerant way to an intolerant religion? I liked the ending and thought that theme of how each religion can take its own interpretation of events that suit its ends are a timely message.

This really is a play that only the National could put on and they’re to be commended for attempting this. This production is successful in some areas and not so in others. I left thinking only Ibsenites or theatre aficionados would really enjoy this, but on speaking to others I think it does have wider appeal perhaps. The story itself is gripping and certainly kept my attention. So much so my buttocks didn’t ache at the end (although a good stretch in the interval helped I’m sure!).

At £12 a ticket as it’s part of the Travelex Season, I’d say it’s great value for money and unlike anything you’ll see for a while. It’s good to see the Olivier Drum used. It really is Epic in every way, as a story, its set and the large-scale cast. I’ve been pondering on its themes these last couple of days, that’s a credit to the playwright, I think he’s been let down a little by this attempt, but as it’s a gargantuan task, I don’t think it’s right to be too harsh on those involved. I’m glad this neglected play has been brought to my attention and to have seen it put on, as I doubt it ever will again be tackled in my lifetime at least.


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