Friday, June 17, 2011

National Theatre at the Olivier

Ibsen's lost masterpiece” tells the story of the Emperor Julian [the Apostate], Christian turned pagan whose ruthless persecution strengthened the will of the “Galileans”, establishing Christianity as an enduring world faith.

Ben Power's new version of this epic of 1873, directed by Jonathan Kent, fills the Olivier stage with vast structures, peopled by the foot-soldiers of history.

But it is the words and the ideas, robust exchanges of views on the edge of the action, which are important, rather than the spectacle and the special effects. We don't need video to imagine the eagle soaring, and we understand that brutal war is universal and of all time, without the warplanes following the eagle through the skies.
There was some wonderful design – the religious procession, the funeral of Helena, but I wasn't convinced by the fatigues and fags for the soldiers. The final image of Julian, echoing the huge crucifix, was very telling, though.

This Julian is a fascinating character, seeking truth and freedom from Constantinople to Athens to Ephesus, abandoned by God, denied philosophy, and dying unmourned on the Field of Mars.

But I found Andrew Scott's performance strangely uninvolving, monotonous in delivery and lacking in charisma – a petulant, pathetic weakling, a tinpot tyrant.

His childhood friends - “shared lives” - did manage some powerful characterizations between them, James McArdle's blunt Agathon, John Heffernan's Peter, wryly humorous at first, then later showing the strength of faith that Julian lacks. But they too sometimes seemed too small-scale for the production, [occasionally inaudible in the circle], which demanded the kind of epic acting that we did get from Ian McDiarmid's Maximus, or Richard Durden's Ursulus, or Nabil Shaban's amazing Constantinus.

A fascinating play, with Julian explicitly following Cain and Judas as the tools of God. But the core of it all could have been told much more tightly, without the distractions of the epic excesses we saw on the National stage.

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