Sunday, June 19, 2011
Theatre Review : Emperor and Galilean by Henrik Ibsen - Olivier Theatre (dir Jonathan Kent 13/6/11)
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.
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.