For its first London production, Ben Power has trimmed Ibsen's mammoth philosophical closet drama from what would take around ten hours to a concise three and a quarter hours (including intermission). That's a lot of cutting. Power has also added some moments for dramatic coherence. The result may be a very distilled Ibsen, but with Jonathan Kent's dynamic direction and some fine performances, particularly Andrew Scott's in the marathon role of Julian, the result is totally absorbing.
There are resonances of Hamlet in Julian. His father and mother have been murdered by his uncle, now the Emperor and Julian lives in fear of what the emperor might do to him. Julian is something of an intellectual, more concerned with ideas than with reality. He wants to believe in Christianity, now the official religion of the Roman empire, but can't. He runs to Athens to study philosophy, but the Athens of his time is very different from that of Plato. After his brother's murder he becomes a war hero. Eventually, to survive, he must start a rebellion against the emperor or be killed by him. When he becomes emperor, he becomes a living example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. He first declares freedom of religion while establishing the pagan gods as the official deities. He then becomes obsessed with Christianity as his adversary. It's either him or Christ. He then decides that he must be god. Julian moves, then, from a weak, vacillating young man to a tyrant. He wants to believe in some divine power, but even his spiritual adviser says that "There's only you."
Andrew Scott gives a magnificent performance as Julian. capturing his spiritual, intelelctual and moral descent in a bloody world (the Christians are as blood-thirsty as he is. Scott is supported by a cast of fifty. Ian McDiarmid is powerful as his mystical guru, James McArdle and John Heffernan moving as the close friends Julian betrays. Jonathan Kent's staging uses the Olivier's drum revolve effectively. It's a grand, almost operatic production, but the characters shine through.
This production of EMPEROR AND GALILEAN is a special event, one of the high points of my theatergoing over the past year or so.
EMPEROR AND GALILEAN. National Theatre Olivier Theatre, June 26, 2011.