When Jonathan Kent’s production of Emperor and Galilean opened at the Olivier Theatre earlier this month, it was the first time Ibsen’s play had been seen on a UK stage. Kent has certainly succeeded in making the best possible case for the work, with a staging that is thrillingly dramatic, but its success also owes a good deal to the new version of the text crafted by NT Associate Director Ben Power.
Reading Michael Meyer’s 1962 translation (which in itself carved two acts from the piece) you get a feel for what Power has achieved with his re-working, which cuts the running time from some nine hours to just over three. Power speaks respectfully of Meyer as the leading Ibsen translator of an earlier generation (he died a decade ago): “As a team we read his translation as a starting point. As always with him, it’s very faithful and speakable; it really respects the structure. You get a real sense of the voice of the playwright coming through.”
What’s required nowadays, though, is a much freer treatment of the text and a straight rendering of Emperor and Galilean like Meyer’s (let alone William Archer’s 1890 translation) just wouldn’t pass muster on the stage in the 21st Century. Power went on to give the text a rigorous work-over. “That reading ran for some six hours and it was clear that there was enough in the play to get excited about, so we commissioned a literal translation. Two, in fact, one for each part of the play. Our aim was always to create a single evening, a coherent arc, although I thought it would end up much longer than it did.” Conflating various characters and episodes, he came up with a swift-moving text that Kent was able to work with.
It’s a pivotal play in Ibsen’s output and, therefore, in the history of modern drama. He first looked at the subject in the mid 1860s, just after leaving Norway to live in Rome. He’d been running theatres in Bergen and Christiania (Oslo) for a dozen years and retired shattered to the sunny south, where he was to recover and gain focus for a writing career that had somewhat faltered.
Although fascinated by the story of the 4th Century Roman Emperor Julian, Ibsen couldn’t quite get to grips with it and went on to write Brand and Peer Gynt, his two great verse dramas, only returning to Emperor and Galilean ten years later. By then, he’d made the decision to renounce poetry once and for all and this epic new play, written in prose, was to usher in the extraordinary flowering of his career that included the socially realistic dramas A Doll’s House, Ghosts and Enemy of the People.