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.

Images – not just text

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This post follows on from thoughts I’ve been having recently, that were especially brought into focus during a lecture with Michael Walling at college on Saturday (see previous post).

The images that theatre creates are one of its most powerful and lingering aspects. Of the hundreds of productions I’ve seen most conjure up an image when I recall them. In fact few bring to mind text or dialogue.

I received a copy of the Original London Cast Recording of Miss Saigon for my recent birthday, I saw this in the West End in the mid nineties and had forgotten how great the score was. Yet two images from that production have remained crystal clear, since seeing it all those years ago ; the scene with all the Ho Chi Minh placards/red flags and the final tableau/image of the death.

What other images come to mind when I consider the theatre I’ve seen??

  • The RSC did a production of Richard II at the Roundhouse a few years ago, as Richard II stands on stage, sand pours down on his head during his last speech, (which is long), and it’s linked to a line of monologue that is also etched on my mind “I’ve wasted time, now time wastes me”, seeing Richard II literally seeing the sands of time pass before him in his prison cell, is one of the most spectacular and moving theatrical images I’ve seen.
  • Pepe Bou who places himself in a giant bubble at the end of a show of his at the London International Mime Festival a few years ago

    Pep Bou and a rather large bubble

  • The chandelier flying over your heads in Phantom
  • The recreation of George Seurat’s painting with the cast at the end of the first half of Sunday in the Park with George – one of the few times I’ve cried in the theatre
  • Nora leaving Torvald at the end of A Doll’s House
  • The two characters at the end of Honour simply seated and talking about the end of their marriage
  • Beasts instant transformation into the Prince in the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast
  • The lead female dancer of the Moscow Ballet pirouetted so many times that I lost count, with unimaginable grace and elegance
  • The vicar in Donkey’s Years, putting his coat over his head and singing “I’m a naughty nun”

The list could go on, but Theatre is a visual and existential art form. The texts are important, but are only part of the overall piece. As I’m reading my plays for college I’m trying to conjure up my own imaginings of what they’d look like, and the images that strike me. As I’m focusing on the Theatre of the Absurd at present, with their distrust of language, it’s no surprise that the imagery is key to my understanding of theatre at present, but looking back I suppose it always has been, I’ve just not been as aware as I am now.

Transform

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To think, or write, or produce a play also means: to transform society, to transform the state, to subject ideologies to close scrutiny.

Brecht 1931

I’m currently immersed in the work and world of Bertold Brecht and Augusto Boal for my assignment.  This is involving me reading widely and delving into topics such as Marxism, Communism, Fascism and the Brazilian dictatorship of the 1960’s/1970’s (heavy stuff admittedly and gets some great looks on my commute to work!), on top of reading both Brecht’s and Boal’s writings and works. My assignment is looking at how the sociopolitical context affected their directorial innovations. This is proving to be absolutely fascinating. One of the key things I’m gaining an understanding of though, is the fact that theatre can (should?) not only reflect the sociopolitical climate of the time but also seek to change it. Boal and Brecht perhaps are especially pertinent exponents of using theatre to change society.

The West End theatre bucking the recession trend is such an encouragement, especially as one of the reasons that play attendance is up is that when people have been asked, they reply that they want to see something with depth, which TV and Hollywood aren’t providing. Audiences want to be engaged with, there’s a time and place to go to the theatre, sit back and enjoy some light entertainment. Yet there are times when the theatre can ” not just show real things, but how things really are” (Brecht). We’re living in tumultuous times, and the theatre can show those, yet also offer ideas and even possible solutions for the way forward for society. A lofty ideal perhaps, but one I feel is true, historically and currently. (just look at the history of dictatorships or countries with poor human rights, one of the first things they clamp down on or censor are theatre’s before most other things). I’m grateful that I live in a country where the theatre is relatively free, I’m also conscious that it’s liberty is under threat from fundamentalists of all persuasions who claim they have a right “not be offended”, which is silly as no-one has a right to not be offended. Often the truth hurts and theatre is perhaps the best art form to confront people with truths they don’t wish to see, for example in Hedda Gabler when Judge Brack says “ But, good God Almighty…people don’t do such things” , Ibsen is clearly showing his uptight Victorian audience with its head in sand that such things do happen, not just on stage but in their towns, communities and even families. What uncomfortable truths can today’s theatre confront us with?

I’m also so encouraged to read about Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre projects, not only that he did, but the centres and groups all over the world that are continuing his legacy and using theatre to help people in the here and now make positive decisions in their lives. While Theatre is about plays, the West End, Greek Theatre etc. Boal’s bringing of theatre to “non-actors” is  inspiring and refreshing to read about. Once the assignment’s complete I hope to look more into the current UK projects using his Theatre of the Oppressed systems.

So while doing the college assignments can sometimes seem a bit cerebral, it’s worth remembering the power of theatre, in our own lives, and in society too.

Hedda Gabler – A Review

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My excitement was finally satisfied as I sat down and Hedda Gabler started last night at the Theatre Royal Bath. I’d been like an excited kid all week. So did it live up to my expectations?

I mainly have to read Ibsen’s plays before I ever see them performed, I really enjoy seeing a play I’ve studied performed, I find especially with Ibsen I miss some of the humour when reading his plays, the cast certainly brought out the comedy inherent in this play which gave great comic relief to the otherwise tense feeling of the play.

Rosamund Pike, was exceptional as Hedda, she performed her, with style and just the right amount of psychosis, sometimes I felt sorry for her, at other times she incensed me. A complicated character, ably acted by Rosamund Pike. Hedda is seen as an enviable and challenging role by actresses and Rosamund rose to that challenge and delivered a stellar and memorable  performance. Her glamour and poise helped us to warm to her, despite her failings. Yet she showed Hedda’s manipulative and psychotic side with just the right balance, on reading and now seeing this play, I’m not 100% sure if Hedda is mentally unstable or just a selfish, lonely and desperate woman.

Tessman, Hedda’s husband was suitably played by Robert Glennister, in many ways a character just as trapped as Hedda. Judge Brack, the other part of the triangle was played with great aplomb by Tim McInnery, who gave him just the right amount of charm and slippery smarm and gave the closing line superbly with a look of horror and astonishment. Colin Tierney’s impassioned underdog performance as Loevborg, was a particular highlight, his struggles and desperate end, were genuinely brought to life. Zoe Waites provided a lovely performance as the infatuated Mrs Elvsted, while Anna Carteret and Janet Whiteside supported the action as Aunt Juliana and Bertha.

The set and lighting was functional and the sound of the burner firing up and rumbling throughout the theatre at the end of act 3 was a chilling conclusion to it.

The production is due to transfer to the West End later this year and so I recommend catching it there if you’re interested in seeing this play brought to life with a fabulous leading lady .

Ibsen here, Ibsen there, Ibsen everywhere

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Rosamund Pike as Hedda in the Bath Theatre Royals production

There seems to be a great selection of Ibsen plays on at the moment, good news for any Ibsenites like myself.

There’s a production of Ghosts on in the West End, Bath’s Theatre Royal has a production of Hedda Gabler on at present which will transfer to the West End soon and Sheffield’s Crucible re-opened last week with a production of An Enemy of the People.

Ibsen’s plays were powerful social comments in their day and continue to be so in our time. Sadly some of the issues he addressed 100+ years ago have yet to be fully dealt with in our 21st Century. It was said that

“any play by Ibsen became a battleground between conservative and reformist forces in the period”

It appears that this continues, I’m genuinely excited that I’m off to see the Theatre Royal Production of Hedda Gabler next week, as I’ve only seen The Dolls House (at the Theatre Royal Bath a couple of years ago). I studied Hedda for my assignment last year at college and look forward to seeing it on stage and seeing how Adrian Noble chooses to bring this play to life.

I highly recommend taking this opportunity to see some of Ibsen’s work on the stage, his plays and the messages they contain are needed today.