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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Andrew Scott, Alexander Vlahos, Genevieve O‚ÄôReilly and Prasanna Puwanarajah/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Even the most committed theatregoer must weep a little inside at the prospect of a play lasting three and a half hours. (Pity the Norwegians, clearly made of sterner stuff, who would have sat through at least eight hours had they braved Ibsen’s epic, two-part theatrical obscurity in its entirety. The length of Emperor and Galilean is such a challenge it has never before been staged in English.) Happily Ben Powers’ adaptation, greatly abbreviated, goes at a tremendous lick in Jonathan Kent’s viscerally thrilling production, so much so that you barely notice the hours passing as we move from 351 to 363 AD. It’s shock-and-awe theatre, Kent and his designer Paul Brown boldly harnessing the drum revolve at the Olivier theatre to transform this vast stage from court to church, battlefield to sacrificial chamber, scaling the action back and forth between epic landscapes and intimate confidences with immense technical fluidity.
The play traces the journey of the Emperor Julian (Andrew Scott), who begins as an excitable, pious youth determined to find a new religious purity and freedom beyond the oppressive Christian doctrines of Constantinople (presided over by his uncle the emperor Constantius, a wonderfully malevolent Nabil Shaban) by studying in Athens. His restless, probing search for spiritual transcendence – and his encounters with the mystic Maximus of Ephesus (a commanding, teasingly slippery Ian McDiarmid) – gradually takes him away from Christianity towards the pagan beliefs the Romans have been so brutally putting down around the hills of Constantinople. And when he is finally crowned emperor, he embarks on his own even more intolerant narrative of bloodlust into Persia, determined to enforce the cult of paganism at any cost. It’s a breathless story of persecution, extremism and intolerance, and Kent and Powers do all they can to make it feel urgent and of the moment with a mix of snappy dialogue, modern and ancient dress, hurtling video projections of aerial bombardment and a pulsing live score.
Scott’s slight frame only underscores the folly of Julian’s increasingly demented journey from idealistic youth to murderous tyrant and his growing, radiant belief in the immortality of his own soul. He is also particularly good at revealing how megalomania and religious fanaticism so often go hand in hand. And Kent’s production is always beautifully alert to the physical nature of religious ecstasy (the speaking in tongues crowd scenes; Julian’s wife Helena (Genevieve O’Reilly), who, driven mad by poison, enacts a carnal union with Jesus himself). Yet as the play proceeds towards its somewhat inevitable conclusion, Ibsen’s fascination with intellectual liberty becomes lost in gathering tides of verbal bombast. What begins as a portrait of a conflicted individual eventually becomes a rather tedious study in the endgame of competing imperialist rhetoric. Still, the sense of a play pushing against the possibilities of theatre is such that Emperor’s appeal should extend beyond Ibsen aficionados. After all, Kent’s production is about as good as you are ever going to get.


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