Apparently in the 19th Century there was a fashion among playwrights to write "chamber plays" - works whose scope was too ambitious to actually be staged by the theatre of the time, and were instead designed to be read at home, an impossibly expensive production simply being imagined. The thing about writing with no constraints of practicality means that other constraints can be forgotten too, so were Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean
ever to actually be staged, it would supposedly run at about eight hours, and so it has never been performed in this country before. If there's a stage that can
now handle the epic requirements of the play the Olivier is surely it, so the National have commissioned the ubiquitous Ben Power to condense the story to a more manageable, though still daunting, three-and-a-half hours (with one interval, which comes nearly two hours in, so if your bladder's anything like mine you'll want to avoid drinking too much beforehand.)
The Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity, which tied it to the Roman Empire, may be the most significant event in the spread of the religion and consequently the history of the next two millenia. But had the next-but-one Emperor had his way, things might have been very different. In the first half, we first meet Julian as an apparently genuine believer, trapped though by his uncle, the sinister Emperor Constantius' (Nabil Shaban - Sil from 1980s Doctor Who
) demands that he remain in Costantinople. Finally getting away to Athens to study, Julian finds a more relaxed atmosphere where vestiges of the Greek gods still remain, before being seduced by the prophecies of Maximus, considered a madman by most. Add to this the fact that the supposedly Christian Costantius murdered his family, and his wife's death in a religious ecstasy, and Julian begins to see Jesus (the Galilean of the title) as his nemesis. An intelligent, contemplative young man and surprisingly efficient general in the first half, by the time he becomes Emperor in the second he is consumed by paranoia and tries to return the Empire to its pagan deities.
Though he's been a busy actor for years, Andrew Scott's profile seems to have rocketed since Cock
, and here the National pretty much confirm him as heir apparent to SRB by, essentially, giving him the run of the Olivier in a role with more lines than Hamlet. As Julian he's only ever offstage for moments, and even then it's just to change costumes. Perhaps aware of the task ahead of him he starts fairly low-key but by the second half has really come into his own, alernately vicious, hyperactive and pitiful. I thought more of the audience could have joined in with tonight's standing ovation but at least a few groups of people did. Though this is the sort of central performance where the phrase "tour de force" gets used, he's not let down by the rest of the cast either - the way his relationship with a trio of childhood friends (Jamie Ballard, James McArdle and John Heffernan) changes as the years go on reflects Julian's relationship with Christianity. And as if Constanius and Julian weren't enough Emperors for one show, there's also the
Emperor, Ian McDiarmid as Maximus, the "prophet" whose sonorous tones lead Julian to his destruction.
Paul Brown's costumes are mainly modern-dress with the odd period touch - something that works better in the costumes than in Nina Dunn's projections (images of helicopters and modern wars are a bit too vague an attempt at contemporary relevance, and jar with a cast who are only armed with swords.) Brown's use of the Drum stage is very effective and actually makes quite economical use of a handful of different sets reconfigured into the various locations. (Although hopefully someone should take note for future productions - a number of scenes are performed with half the Drum sunken throughout, and this does affect the acoustics. It's noticeable how much less audible the actors are in these scenes.) Ibsen has created a classical tragedy out of Julian's story, although a final attempt to reconcile the warring elements within the character feels a bit forced - director Jonathan Kent instead opts to end by drawing attention to the confusion Julian left behind him, a cacophony of Christian and pagan prayers ending the show. I have to say, although I was looking forward to seeing Andrew Scott in this play I probably wouldn't have booked if he hadn't been in it, the prospect of "Ibsen's longest play" hardly being a big draw for me. But although Scott remained one of the biggest factors in the evening's success, I enjoyed the whole thing a lot more than I expected to, and while it was never going to feel short, it certainly didn't feel like three-and-a-half hours. This seems to me the epitome of what the Travelex season is all about: Only a theatre of the National's scale could put on a play like this; but even for them actually getting people to see it would be a hard sell which is where the subsidised tickets come in. (Even then, the £12 tickets weren't quite sold out tonight.) I did rather suspect this might be this year's Danton's Death
but instead it's in many ways a triumph.
And finally, I think it's been rather overshadowed as we found out about the running time and its leading man, but let's not forget that for most people the first thing we knew about the show was when it first got announced on the website via its poster image. A poster image that is, quite frankly, fucking mental
.Emperor and Galilean
by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Ben Power is in repertory until the 10th of August at the National Theatre's Olivier.