Review – Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre

Tuesday 14 June 2011

You’re a casting director. You’ve got Hitler’s favourite play sitting on your desk. Who you gonna call? Ian McDiarmid!

Turns out we were we duped like fish in a barrel last year when we visited The Prince of Homburg because THIS is actually the Fuhrer’s favourite play (and perhaps that wasn’t really Stalin’s favourite play last year either). We hear that Kim Il Jong’s favourite play is Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train and apparently Mussolini would have been a sucker for No Sex Please We’re British had he lived to see it, so we’re looking forward to revivals of those before e’er long.*

Anyhoo, Emperor and Galilean is notable for being the only play that Ibsen wrote for the Barbican (his version was 12 hours long and in Norwegian –  who else could he have had in mind to stage it?) but the National Theatre has got Ben Power to shave off a few corners an get it down to a mere three-and-a-half hours.

It’s the story of the rise and fall of the Emperor Julian who was notable for trying to get the Roman empire to abandon the new-fangled Christianity and revert to the polytheism of Rome’s earlier days and the good old fashioned, time-honoured techniques of talking to oracles and throwing intestines around.

It’s surprisingly impressive. Designer Paul Brown has pulled out all the stops to produce an epic space and the Olivier’s drum revolve is given a good workout.

The costumes are a mixture of archaic and contemporary: suits worn with toga throws and military camouflage worn with super hero breastplates. Julian turns up in an A line gold coat presumably borrowed from The Duchess of Cornwall, her signature Treacy fascinator replaced with a laurel wreath that wouldn’t look out of place as a table decoration at one of Nigella’s “thrown together” Christmas dinners. Surprisingly this hotchpotch works.

What’s most impressive though, is WEW fave Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) as Julian who is on stage almost the entire time (interesting interview here) and demonstrates a development of character so clear that even the Whingers could follow it. In a role that must challenge Hamlet for size, the first few scenes sees him making decisions before his friends can talk him out of it, then moving on to the next country in an “if it’s Tuesday it must be Ephesus” fashion. Phil very much coveted the shirt he wears in Athens.

Director Jonathan Kent clearly has eye for detail. Realising some of the audience might begin to flag three-quarters of the way through the first half Julian’s wife (who we think is also his Aunt, but we stand to be corrected on this) Helena (Genevieve O’Reilly) whips out a lone breast (SPOILER ALERT) as she dies from eating poisoned peaches presumably imported from Germany (END OF SPOILER ALERT). What is it with Kent and single breasts? Wasn’t it he who got Ruthie Henshall to whip one out when she gave her tit-ular Marguerite?

The Whingers were rather entranced. So much so that they returned after the interval (Act 1: 1h 50m. Act 2: 1h 20m) for more. Not everyone had the Whingers’ staying power and quite a few didn’t find their way back to the auditorium after the interval.

Despite Power’s largely perky version don’t come expecting many laughs. The only one (for us) was when a woman in a brightly patterned dress tried to sneak out only to find herself suddenly illuminated and caught up in some in-auditorium action.

Act 2 kicks off like a scene from Eyes Wide Shut and quickly morps into Hair with more flesh exposed. McDiarmid (excellent) keeps up his Star Wars credentials as the Obi-Wan Kenobi-ish Maximus, dressed in black and often appearing like a floating head from the gloom.

Things do drag a little after the interval the Christianity vs Paganism debate became a bit “Daddy or chips?” to the secular Whingers but there’s enough fiery destruction to keep you alert.

Kent does a creditable job of keeping the whole thing moving although the jury is still out about the foot stomping.


*Word reaches us that these are other famous political figures’ favourite shows

  • Imelda Marcos: Shoes
  • Margaret Thatcher: The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
  • John Major: Grey Gardens
  • Angela Eagle:  No Man’s Land
  • Silvio Berlusconi: Guys and Dolls
  • Sarah Palin: On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
  • The Ceaușescus: Season’s Greetings


It was four at the interval but the second act – although boasting some very impressive pyrotechnics – began to outstay its welcome for some reason.


20 Responses to “Review – Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre”

  1. Baldassaro Says:

    I was there last night, and would have bet a substantial sum that you would have left at the interval (while hoping you wouldn’t). I agree that the second half flagged a bit, and also that Andrew Scott was superb. Oddly, it’s my third single breast in a week – there were two separate occurrences in Dream Story at the Gate last Friday. Must be a new theatrical fashion.

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Four? Four? You are mad! It was so boring and Mr Scott totally a one-note pony! Next thing you’re going to be telling me to burn the supply ships!

  3. Ben Brown Says:

    Hated it. Utter utter bollocks. It was so shit, it really made me angry, thanks for pointing out how many people didn’t make it back for the second half, you’re a very gnerous reviewer. Just found it dull and unengaging.

  4. Karen Bolton Says:

    I saw the Saturday matinee and although it was long, I did really enjoy it. I thought the story was good and the changes in scene with the revolving stage and the processions kept it interesting. The interactions between Julian and his friends held it all together, by following the change in their relationships as Julian moved from schoolboy chum to power obssessed emperor. The Helios worship was fun. John Heffernan, who played Peter, was wonderful of course but I still haven’t worked out why he had to take his socks and shoes off!

  5. Andrew Says:

    Well it certainly seems to divide opinion – the woman in the row behind me ejaculated “I’ve never seen such shit!” at the end of the first half. It has all the usual merits of an Olivier staging, but maybe stripped of its bells and whistles could get a little dull. The theological debate can be obscure, but clergymen will probably enjoy it

  6. We thought that this was brilliant – a heavy weight, epic drama. Great to see the drum used so much and to such fantastic effect, and Andrew Scott’s performance was just incredibly good! You are right, he basically didn’t leave the stage for 3 hours and his performance was utterly gripping throughout.

    Yes it lagged a bit in places, but in general, we thought it was great.

    Full review here:

  7. Fred Says:

    Just saw the press night – I loved Andrew Scott – I know he has quite a high voice for such a huge auditorium, but I thought it worked really well for his edge-of-sanity fragility – it had a note of hysteria which worked, and his black eyes also give that crazy feel. You don’t have to be ‘into’ religion to enjoy it – Julian’s ‘we’re alive, just enjoy being alive now, this is all there is’ kinda stuff when he was worshipping Helios (the giver of life now, not after death) was very modern – that speech about Christianity with its ‘thou shalt not’ was sooooo true – how it makes people feel guilty for the very natural, human need to indulging in the pleasures of the flesh etc. All this felt very modern.

    I think Scott’ll get good reviews – it’s the kind of role that made Michael Sheen a star when he did Caligula.

  8. Ali67 Says:

    No Shrek review?

  9. Joe Preston Says:

    Well what a mix – a bit like the piece which, was for me a totally gripping and exciting experience and what theatre should be – challenging and pushing the boundaries of technical brilliance. Not just the amazing set design and superbly crafted adaptation, but also the performances, in particular, of Scott, Shaban and McDiarmid, make this not-to-be-missed. Thanks to all involved – brilliant!!

  10. […] Read the rest of the reviews for Hitler’s favourite play here and find out what play Silvio Berlusconi rates here. […]

  11. H.L. Says:

    Agree with Webcowgirl. The reason I left in the interval was due to being tired at straining to hear Andrew Scott and trying to make out what he was actually saying. And to be honest, because I was bored by it all and became disengaged. Personally I did not think the main actor carried the piece and would be wary of seeing him in a large theatre again. Perhaps he is more of a TV actor. Impressed The whingers were able to sit it out-you were probably near the stage than I was perhaps.

  12. Jim Stuks Says:

    Really wasn’t impressed.
    I was one of the walkers.

  13. Baldassaro Says:

    Well, they put me on their audience feedback video, so I love them to bits!

  14. ja Says:

    I really enjoyed it, but definitely a production for theatre afficionados rather than occasionals.

  15. HL Says:

    Interesting how all the people who like it need to make out they are somehow in an elite who ‘get it’….

  16. JustNathan Says:

    I can see why this piece is flawed and has divided opinions, but I was utterly enthralled. Maybe Scott’s performances are uneven, but I saw his youth and self-delusion degenerate into hysteria and near-madness through the course of the evening.

    I had been up since 4 in the morning, and when I realised that this was an early (7pm) starter and late (10:30pm) finisher I imagined I’d fall asleep in row B of the stalls in the first half. Not a bit of it.

    (Spolier alert) Pity the Christians won though.

  17. HL Says:

    I like JustNathans comment-it is an honest response. However the clue is in Row B of the Stalls. Julian’s performance simply did not travel up to the left side of the Circle where there is a ‘dead patch’ of sound which an actor has to work at the Olivier and we did not get those nuances as we could not actually hear the text a lot of the time.

  18. HL Says:

    I like @JustNathans comment-it is an honest response. However the clue is in Row B of the Stalls. Julian’s performance simply did not travel up to the left side of the Circle where there is a ‘dead patch’ of sound which an actor has to work at the Olivier and we did not get those nuances that @JustNathan did.

  19. S Butcher Says:

    Andrew Scott hasn’t the necessary gravitas or depth of voice or acting ability to carry off this huge role with any sense of believability in Julian’s supposed prowess on the military field or in oratory and philosophical brainpower.

    Too much reliance on film projection too – more Theatre style, please!! Not film of helicopters etc.

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