Jonathan Kent began his tenure at the Almeida Theatre 21 years ago with a startlingly-realised production of When We Dead Awaken, which largely overcame the challenges of Ibsen’s seemingly unstageable final play. He pulls off a similar miracle now with the epic Emperor and Galilean, a much earlier work previously unperformed in the UK.
Kent’s superbly theatrical staging, employing a cast of 50, takes full advantage of the Olivier’s magnificent machinery and Paul Brown’s imaginative designs and Mark Henderson’s striking lighting present us with a staggering array of images.
Ibsen’s protagonist is the Roman Julian the Apostate who, in the 4th Century AD, turned his back on the Christianity of his youth and reverted to the paganism of former times in reaction to the fanaticism of his uncle, the Emperor Constantine. As with all Ibsen’s dramas, there’s a strongly personal streak in the lone man, rejecting past conventions and carving his own, solitary way in life.
Ibsen had already been writing for more than 10 years when he started this massive, sprawling piece in 1864 and it marks the vital transition from verse to prose that ushered in the socially realistic phase of his career for which he’s best known. Putting it aside to write his final verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt, he took it up again a decade later, having decided to abandon poetry once and for all.
Emperor and Galilean is an enormous advance on the early Nordic histories, such as The Pretenders and The Vikings of Helgeland, that represent Ibsen’s earliest strugglings as a playwright. More than anything it brings to mind the serpentine grandeur of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, as a bloody tyrant ranges through Central Asia, imposing his Imperial will and seeking to destroy his personal and idealogical past.
As Julian, Andrew Scott’s light tenor is seriously challenged much of the time, but he holds the stage throughout a long and intense evening, growing from simmeringly fanatical youth to delusional despot, egged on by Ian McDiarmid’s weighty mystic Maximus. Genevieve O’Reilly impresses as the Imperial bride, who dies an agonizing death by poisoning, and Nabil Shaban is inspired casting as the malevolent Constantine, throwing a threatening shadow on Julian’s early life.
Dramaturg Ben Power has condensed Ibsen’s nine hour text into a taut three and a half hours but it still requires effort from its audience. Is Emperor and Galilean one for the Ibsen completist only? I’d say not. For anyone interested in his development as a playwright, this was a fascinating tipping point and the production a once in a lifetime opportunity, but Kent’s virtuosic staging and the sheer scale of Ibsen’s vision have much more to recommend them.
Read the Exeunt interview with Ben Power.