National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 15 June, 2011

For some categories of awards and listings, this is a “new play”: although Ibsen finished writing it in 1873, this is its English-language première… perhaps unsurprisingly since, as well as being called by the author his most important play, it is also his longest. Like Peer Gynt, it was written to be read rather than staged, and Ben Power cuts its 2x5-act structure down to four long acts which tell the story of the 4th century AD Roman emperor Julian the Apostate. We see Julian suffer a growing crisis of Christian faith and finally, under the tutelage of the mystic Maximus, renouncing the official imperial religion and returning to worship of the Greco-Roman gods, principally Helios the sun god. On his succession to the throne he proclaims freedom of worship but increasingly persecutes Christians, finding their worship of the Galilean a personal affront, before dying in a war against the Persians after which the empire returns to Christianity.
In some ways, much of the play resembles Peer Gynt without the levity, and perhaps with a Bible instead of an onion as the central symbol: in epic (though less episodic) form, it follows one man’s search for metaphysical truth and identity across a global canvas, to the conclusion that there can be no ideal synthesis nor defined ultimate destination except the grave. Jonathan Kent’s visually striking staging gives the Olivier’s segmented stage revolve a workout such as it has not seen since His Dark Materials, and Andrew Scott gives his full commitment to the central role of Julian: he rages and whimpers, snarks and gasps, with maximum emotional range. However, this is not enough to make the evening compelling. The inevitable resonances of a modern-dress portrayal of a military march on Babylon in fact resonate far less than expected. And he is no doubt heartily sick of the comparisons, but I defy anyone to hear Ian McDiarmid as Maximus coaxing, "Give in! Surrender to the other world!" and not imagine the emperor Palpatine in Star Wars declaring, "Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the Dark Side!" Perhaps it repays greater patience, though I am afraid I doubt it. I am glad to have seen this play, but rather less glad to have spent three and a half hours seeing it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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