True Faith

Emperor and Galilean @ Olivier Theatre, London
Reviewed by John Newman

Set between 351 and 363 AD Emperor and Galilean concerns the Roman ruler Julian the Apostate and his attempts to revert the empire to pagan religion. Originally written as a two part ten hour epic by Henrik Ibsen which premiered in 1896 it has rarely been performed since and never staged in the UK. That is until this summer when Ben Power’s lean three hour twenty minute long adaptation was staged at the NT Olivier Theatre. Ibsen subtitled the work “ a World- Historical Play” and it is described by American academic Toril Moi as raising “the question of whether human beings have the power to shape history or whether history has a will of its own” . Ibsen described it as his most important work yet it is probably his least known. 
How much of his ambitious intent comes across in what must have been a gargantuan editing task on Power’s behalf is probably impossible to discern. Nobody in the audience is liable to have read the original but what we see seems to focus on the flaws of one man as much as it does on his empire. Power has made the story straight forward and despite the running time it zips by to the point where the last half hour feels rushed and starts to slip into a formula. Without the intellectual thrust of opposing views and counter arguments of his friends (with one stunning exception) we are left mostly in Julian’s solitary deluded mind. Yet the first half – lasting close on two hours- is as good a piece of drama as you’re liable to see anywhere. Eschewing historical costume for the most parts- the students wearing present day clothes- and containing some exuberant intellectual jousting it’ll set your mind at work in a way that nothing else you’ll see this year will.

The impressive staging – making full of use of the theatre’s famous drum revolve- can sometimes threaten to draw your attention away from the debate as much as it supports it, making you go wow at the visuals when the words are meant to be more important. For example the opening procession is so well staged that it seems almost a shame when people start talking. Later, the booming percussion and impressive back projections mixing warfare down the ages invigorate proceedings- but are they there to give us as well as the actors a breather? Equally there are moments where the horror of what is being portrayed is symbolically rendered not least a sequence where a Christian church is massacred or when Julian starts to see visions. The visual highlight is the climactic pre- interval scene involving a coffin, incense and a triple level set. There is a truly religious feel to many aspects of the staging with symbols, smoke and echoey choral work. The barrage of historical war machines also serves to remind us how volatile the middle East remains to this day.
For actor Andrew Scott this is probably one of the hardest roles he will ever play. We first meet Julian as a naive nephew of the Emperor Constantine, shut away in the palace immersed in books. Scott’s boyish energy veers between idealism and depression so that when Julian gets the chance to escape with three friends to Athens the character seems to come alive. His rise to become Emperor happens more by luck than deed and despite acute anxiety over his own abilities but he has been convinced by the pagan Maximus that it is his destiny. Again, we can only interpret Ben Power’s editing but he seems to give Maximus little verisimilitude. Played with relish in that fruity, shady voice we all know by Ian MacDiarmid Maximus is given almost supernatural powers and we can only assume we are seeing him through Julian’s eyes. Hidebound to prophecies which might be simply the deranged imagination of the old visionary he acts to restore the Sun God, slaughtering Christians and one by one turning on his friends.  Utilmatley he aims to become a God himself but is shaken by the faith of Christians especially one of his old friends and it is to the initial relatIonships that Julian will be pulled back to, albeit in different circumstances.  

Scott then, has his work cut out. He’s an actor who seems to embrace the unconventional- his Moriaty in last year’s Sherlock was terrific and here he oscillates with aplomb. If we’re not always convinced by the story, Julian is convinced and that’s what counts. When he appears in the second half he looks and sounds physically different, a man instead of a student yet his mental frailties still show.
It would be easy to applaud the achievement of this production without appreciating its challenging dialogue and fascinating arguments. It’s not for everyone but if you want something different to immerse your head in then Emperor and Galilean is on till mid August. It is a unique, at times insane piece of theatre but you’ll rarely pass three and half hours at the theatre so differently.

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