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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Emperor and Galilean
Olivier Theatre Summer 2011

Henrik Ibsen's 1873 drama is an extraordinary work, Shakespearean in its ability to combine epic scope with a moving personal drama, and it is all-but-unbelievable that this National Theatre production is its English premiere.

And yet only the National could take it on, with its large production demands and cast of fifty – and we must be grateful that it has. You are unlikely to see this play produced again very soon, and unlikely to see it done so well ever.

Ibsen's subject is the Fourth Century Constantinople-based Emperor Julian The Apostate, who attempted to reverse his uncle Constantine's conversion of all of conquered Europe to Christianity.

In Ibsen's portrait, Julian begins as a highly devout and devoted Christian, breaking with orthodoxy only in being attracted to the forbidden Greek philosophers, but studying them leads him toward Hellenic paganism and away from 'The Galilean,' Jesus.

(This is a process that Ibsen fudges somewhat, at least in this otherwise admirable adaptation by Ben Power. While Julian's rejection of Christianity is understood through his rebellion against the repressiveness and corruption of Constantine's court, he does seem to become an ardent worshipper of the Sun God abruptly and overnight.)

From then on, Julian's rise through the army and the court, and his imperialistic ambitions as Emperor, are all driven by his war against the Galilean, one which takes him beyond obsession to madness. And so, as in Shakespeare's Roman plays, we see and respond to history as personal tragedy set in and shaping a much larger arena.

Jonathan Kent's production makes full use of the National's resources, from the elaborate stage machinery of the Olivier to a regiment of extras drawn from London's theatre schools, but Kent never loses sight of the personal human tragedy at the play's core.

As Julian, Andrew Scott is rarely offstage, convincingly and movingly taking us through his character's transformation from simple and devout youth through ardent convert and missionary to megalomaniac, making us feel and grieve for the cost to his soul even as we are caught up in the excitement of his journey. 

Ian McDiarmid brings gravitas to the half-charlatan mystic who becomes Julian's guru, encouraging him to see himself as the only one great enough to challenge Christ, and Jamie Ballard, James McArdle and John Heffernan have strong scenes as the boyhood friends who repeatedly serve as painful reminders of how far he's strayed from what he once believed.

Emperor and Galilean is overlong and unwieldy, but so is Antony And Cleopatra, and – poetry aside – Ibsen's play stands quite respectably alongside Shakespeare's. Taking it out of the library and returning it to the stage so triumphantly is exactly what a National Theatre is for.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Emperor and Galilean - Nationa Theatre 2011