“Emperor and Galilean” by Henrik Ibsen

in a new version by Ben Power

at the Olivier Theatre, Tuesday 12th July 2011

In a time of sweeping revolution in the Middle East, which many of us liberal-minded people applaud unquestioningly, we should also question the effect on the populations of the turbulent nations. Transition periods can be a difficult time, causing violence and confusion, and Henrik Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean in a new version by Ben Power at the National Theatre asks us to reflect more seriously on the nature of conflict.

Director Jonathan Kent doesn’t shy away from the theme of religion in the play, but rather than making grand statements about what it true and what is false in our now secular society, the opposing sides of Christianity and paganism become metaphors for arbitrary sides chosen by competitors, who stick dogmatically to their beliefs. Power’s text, which has shortened Ibsen’s original twelve-hour version to little over three, puts all the attention on Julian, allowing history to take place around him, leaving him all but powerless. In Julian we are given a Macbeth-like figure, who rises to the position of Emperor after it is prophesied by Maximus, even though his friends try to dissuade him from doing so.

There’s one major incongruity in Kent’s production; the world of paganism is shown to be full of colour and verve, but Christianity is pious and monochrome. This goes against Ibsen’s central message, which seems to suggest a defence of Christianity, especially in the final scenes. Then again, perhaps this inability to present a suspended argument is Ibsen’s fault, considering earlier on in the play he suggests that “everything beautiful [and] everything human [is] forbidden” by Christians.

Paul Brown’s design incorporates the best use of the Olivier’s revolve stage that I’ve seen. New aspects are revealed with each scene, constantly surprising and paying homage to the epic nature of the play. It is supported by Nina Dunn’s brazen and violent video design, projecting huge, god-like images of soldiers and war. Mark Henderson’s lighting is just as epic, allowing for startling entrances and ominous exits, and Christopher Shutt’s sound design, although peculiar at times, is still powerful.

Among the huge cast are some stand-out performances. Genevieve O’Reilly as Helena, Julian’s wife, is particularly affecting in the moments before her death, and James McArdle as Agathon acts as the common man, allowing us low-born audience members a way in to the pop of courtly life. Ian McDiarmid’s Maximus starts of a little distant, but soon becomes a powerful and omnipresent force. It is Andrew Scott, however, in the central role of Julian, who impresses most. On stage for almost the entire length of the play, he gives an astonishing performance, believing himself to be a deity but remaining remarkably human. His dilemma is fascinating, and gets our brains whirring.

The National Theatre was right to revive this oft-forgotten Ibsen epic. It represents a time between his nationalist and domestic eras which isn’t remembered enough, and asks us to question current and past events. The modern dress brings the play right up-to-date, not at all jarringly, and shows that even playwrights normally associated with the minutiae of life can more than happily turn their hand to epic once in a while.

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