Review: Emperor and Galilean – Olivier Theatre

Church and State, two institutions that have shaped and divided nations for centuries; forces that dominate history. Epic subjects for an epic play and they don’t come much more epic than Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean. Receiving its English stage premiere, this pared down version from Ben Power still runs for 3 hours 30 minutes – the full version would run to nearly 8 hours.

Christianity is beginning to take hold in ancient Constantinople, although Paganism is still a dominant force in the Empire. For Julian, nephew of the Roman Emperor, the Christian faith has been the cornerstone of his upbringing. All seems set fair for the rise of Christianity as the established religion until Julian faces a crisis of faith and turns to paganism. As Julian manoeuvres himself for the Roman crown, he also sets course on a collision force between the ancient and new religions with bloody consequence.

State and faith clash, not only for control of the Empire but on a personal level also for Julian’s increasingly fragile mind. In the end one gets the feeling that far from being a decisive leader, Julian was in fact little more than a puppet being used for religious reasons.

The programme highlights the recent religious clashes in Egypt and indeed the production does seem both timely and relevant, despite its historical context.

This is an epic that sweeps across the years and across the countries from Constantinople, to Greece, France and Persia, it’s a constantly moving production and even in this heavily edited text is a marathon effort for both cast and audience.

The lengthy first half requires considerable expository set up, however, it does provide a solid backbone onto which one can overlay the historical.

Director Jonathan Kent relishes the epic nature of the piece, utilising the full scope of the Olivier stage and Paul Brown’s evocative and fluid set. Kent also manages to balance the large scale 50-strong cast with the small and intimate duo or trio scenes. Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting and Jonathan Dove’s percussive score also helps focus and direct attention across the vast stage.

In such a large scale piece, some of the dialogue is lost in the vastness at times and indeed, Andrew Scott’s Julian seemed strangely under-performed for the initial 20 minutes; after that, however, the transformation was noticeable with Scott turning in a remarkable maturing performance as the ambitious politician moves from innocent student to cold calculating despot.

There are other strong performances from the company including Nabil Shaban’s Constantinus, John Hefferman’s voice of reason Peter and Ian McDiarmid’s manipulative Maximus.

While one has to admire the ambition and sweep of the production its not always clear what the final message one should take away is. As a historical epic that looks at the struggle for the Empire’s religious soul it works but as something deeper and more profound the jury is still out. Despite the edited text from Power, the script still suffers from overblown passages that make this a show to admire rather than fully love.

Photo: Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

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