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.