Madeleine Davies

Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Emperor and Galilean: review

In Miscellaneous, Theatre on June 15, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Watching Emperor and Galilean, an Ibsen drama about one man’s struggle with the cult of Christ in the 4th century Roman empire, one thought was persistent. Why is Jordan Knight, the high-pitched pin-up from 90s boyband New Kids on the Block, running around the Olivier?

This probably says more about me than the National’s production or its (very talented) star Andrew Scott. I was a big fan of the boys. Still, I remained oddly unmoved throughout the three hour performance. Which is saying something considering the amount of shouting, crying and skin tearing that goes on.

I’ve been trying to decide whether it would be fair to say the whole thing was a bit overwrought.  It was certainly quite shouty (have you seen the bit on Friends where Gary Oldman teaches Joey that to enunciate is to spit? You could see a LOT of spittle flying from row C).

I’m not sure the problem is peculiar to the production. The play itself is hugely serious, tackling philosophical themes though portentous lines delivered by characters in various states of emotional crisis. Ibsen called it “A World-Historical play” and also his “most important”. It is enormously ambitious, covering 12 years of history during which Julian, the man who will become the empire’s Emperor, evolves from pious Christian convert to a deluded warmongering tyrant intent on possessing the very souls of his people. It asks all sorts of questions. What was lost when Christianity replaced paganism? What belongs to Caesar and what to God? (Matthew 22 v 21 is quoted A LOT) Are human beings just pawns in a divine plot to see Christ glorified?

All of which are good and interesting questions. I was particularly struck by a scene in which Julius rails against the “Thou Shalt Nots” he associates with Christianity and his rage at those who tell him that his murdered wife is now Christ’s possession, too pure to stay with him on earth. His vision of the new cult emerging is an ugly one but one which probably persists today – hollow eyed ascetics longing for martyrdom. The play stands in a grand tradition of tragedy – the bloody fatalism of greek dramas and the enigmatic but over-reaching Shakespearian hero. 

(Also, Iain McDiarmid is brilliantly creepy as the mystic Maximus-think the witch in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves with a beard).

But…

The shouting is relentless. And there is so little variety of pace or tone. Just a constant cranking up of violence, emotion and volume which, for me at least, meant it threatened to rush headlong over into farce. The lady next to me let out a slightly frustrated sigh as yet another very loud rant filled the stage. It’s never a good sign when you are rolling your eyes rather than wiping them during a mad crying session on stage.

Ibsen’s original play is a nine hour epic so perhaps an uncut version would allow for greater variety of tone. Maybe even some lighter moments – Maximus writing stuff in egg yolk for instance or Julius having a bit of a mumble.  Maybe, but I suspect trying to recall the lyrics to the Kids’ hit parade would still have been a necessary distraction and a welcome relief from the Oldman-ing.

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