When theatre trailers go too far?
The Seagull at the Arcola

The flawed excellence of The Emperor and the Galilean

Emperor-and-Galilean-at-t-007 Those lesser-known, plays by famous playwrights are normally kept on the shelf for a reason and Henrik Ibsen's, 9-hour, two-play epic The Emperor and the Galilean is, arguably, no exception. Firstly it was never written to be performed but, as a parlour play, to be read.

Ben Power's version for the National Theatre has cut this literary leviathan down to a mere three and a half hours long and it could still lose half an hour without concern for coherence. While director Jonathan Kent has given it an epic staging, catapulting it out of the parlour and onto the grand Olivier stage.

There are some odd production choices - the Parthenon painted on backdrop is a little naff in the context of the production and modern war planes and tanks projected on the back wall, when the story at that point is about a dangerous march across miles of desert to reach the enemy, just seem out of place. There is also occasionally some over-baked acting but there is also much to like.

For a start it rattles along at a pace traversing the Roman Empire, Europe and the Middle East. The action follows the protagonist Julian, a sensitive, God-fearing, intellectual brought up under the iron rule of his uncle Constantius the first Christian Roman Emperor in Constantinople.  Julian's story sees him becoming Caesar, fighting for his uncle in France and then winning the favour of his men and becoming Emperor, fighting the Persians.

It also sees him battling and rejecting his faith resulting in conflict with his most loyal friends and, under the guidance of the magician Maximus, pursuing the old pagan gods and a new Kingdom of his own making. In doing so he sends the Empire on a path towards destruction as a battle between old and new religion ensues. Julian gradually turns from timid to tyrant.

And for the few dodgy staging choices there are many more superb ones. Frankenstein showcased, or so I thought, how the Olivier stage can be fully utilised but the Emperor and Galilean blows that out of the water to the point where 'what the stage does next' becomes part of the enjoyment of the play.

There is also real fire, ash and rubble falling from above, blood, horror, hysterics and a bit of stabbing to boot. And not just armpit-stabbing either.

Andrew Scott as Julian works tremendously hard. He's on stage pretty much for the entire play but his pace and energy never falters as he grows more power-crazed, paranoid and guilt-wracked.

Ian McDiarmid seems like an odd choice to play the magician, seeming too well-spoken and mannered for an entrail-reading mystic who lives in a cave but Nabil Shaban chills as the Emperor Constantius, so much so that you don't doubt for one minute when Julian tells us that his parents were killed at his uncle's instigation.

I know there are people that hated this and from the number of empty seats, the critics may well have savaged it but I really enjoyed it. It is flawed but it is also excellent fun and there is certainly enough to entertain and keep you glued to the story. I'm giving it four stars and if you can get a cheap ticket you will certainly get a lot of production for your money.


Andrew Scott of course, he played Mr W's lover in Cock. There are several second degree connections but my favourite is John Heffernan who plays Julian's friend Peter in this, was also in Revenger's Tragedy with Rory Kinnear who played Laertes to Mr W's Hamlet. The two are also working together at the moment on Richard II somewhere in deepest darkest Wales. 

And here's a little video about E&G: