It has been nearly 24 hours since I escaped from the Olivier Theater and the production of Emperor and Galilean being paraded in front of a loyal London theater-going audience as someone’s idea of a show worth producing and I admit I’m still scratching my head about what to say. I had to see this show as an Ibsen completist, but I was really worried given 1) its running time (3 1/2 hours, with the first act a punishing 1:50) 2) the fact that for whatever reason 150 years had gone by and no one had seen fit to produce this play. Accident … or thoughtful avoidance? It was also a play written to be read and not produced, and it preceded all of Ibsen’s great works. All in all, it had the orange and black stripes commonly associated with poisonous animals all over it. EMPEROR AND GALILEAN: DO NOT EAT*.
I went anyway, though. The plot (both overdrawn and yet incomplete, feeling a bit like the English language version of Red Cliffs) started with teenage Prince Julian (Andrew Scott) attempting to deal with the pressure both of being in line for the throne (if his uncle, Emperor Constantius – Nabil Shaban, deliciously evil – doesn’t kill him first) and of not being able to make up his mind about religion. He starts the play very Christian, wanting only to return to the hills of Cappadocia and study the bible with his friends. Later he gets into the pagan mysteries (while studying in Athens) and slowly turns away from Christianity. Skipping over a bit, he does wind up becoming emperor and convincing himself he’s being chosen for thte job by the pagan gods, whom he chooses to restore when he takes the throne (he’s not called “Julian the Apostate” for nothing). Then he takes his mojo and decides to attack Persia … and basically hallucinates himself to death.
All of this up and down is done by Andrew Scott at exactly the same tone throughout – moderately hysterical. It was sad to see him out-acted not just by all three of his best friends but also by Ian McDiarmid, playing Maximus, the mystic he hooks up with when he leaves Athens. The thing is, McDiarmid’s voice, which I couldn’t but hear as the Emperor from the Star Wars movies, just put him in a whole ‘nother level of reality when he and Scott were on the state. McDiarmid owned his role: Scott was owned by his (God I love watching the old dudes show the tyros how you do it). I lay an entire star not earned for this play at Scott’s feet; perhaps he will find his way as the show goes on, but I can’t help but feel this flawed beast should never have been let out of the stableyard.
Credit is due the National as they did not stint with this production: the entrance of Constantius is truly amazing; the many-leveled uses of the revolving stage were impressive (it’s a door! it’s a cliff!), though I felt the slaughterhouse-y thing under the church was unnecessary; the simple costuming effective; the music stirring. And there was a very enthusiastic Dionysian ritual orgy-thing at the start of act two just when you thought you had no more energy to get through until the end. Still, I’ll be clear: this show should never have seen the light of day, the National should not have blown so much money on bringing it to life (much less funding a new script), and Andrew Scott, much like Mark Hamill (as Luke Skywalker), needs to find a few more emotions. I cannot recommend this play to anyone other than hard-core Ibsen fans; all others, spare yourself the agony: here’s the Wikipedia article on Julian; read it with a bottle of wine by your side and I promise you you’ll come off far more satisfied than I did after my long and painful night at the theater watching this thing.
*Actually what you’ll want to not do is drink before this show unless you have a bladder the size of a watermelon.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, June 11th, 2011, at 7 PM. It runs through August 10th.)