By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Ben Power
Directed by: Jonathan Kent
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Tuesday 12th July 2011
We were always going to be keen to see this rarely performed Ibsen, and this production, of a Ben Power adaptation, didn’t stint when it came to the cast or the set. Andrew Scott’s strong central performance as Julian anchored the piece brilliantly, and while the play doesn’t have a lot of laughs, our attention was hooked throughout.
It came across to me as a debate play, looking at religious conflict in general, and specifically the clash between spiritual and temporal power, self-will or God’s will, hence the title. Would Julian choose to take on the mantle of emperor to bring about the ‘third kingdom’ which would unite man’s worldly and divine natures (yes, I know, nutty as a fruit cake), or would he choose to be subservient to the will of the god represented by Jesus Christ, the Galilean? Given that these early Christians are so full of the Holy Spirit that they joyfully massacre anyone who follows a different path, it’s a tough call, especially as Julian has lived his life on the brink since Constantius had the rest of his family murdered when he and his brother, Gallus, were small boys.
Raised in Cappadocia as a devout Christian, Julian was brought back to Constantinople with his brother Gallus when they were young men, and kept close to the Emperor to prevent them from taking their revenge. Gallus appears to be honoured by Constantius when he’s given the title ‘Caesar’, and anointed as Constantius’s heir, but then he’s immediately sent to wage war against the Persians. I assume Constantius hoped he would be killed in battle, but in fact he’s victorious, and so he’s sent to Cappadocia as Governor, where he cracks down hard on the locals who’ve taken to fighting each other over religious differences. Finally, with Gallus seeming unkillable, Constantius brings him back to Constantinople, where he dies of something or other, i.e. he’s poisoned.
We hear most of this by report, only seeing Gallus himself in the opening scene. Meanwhile Julian, the nervy sensitive type, is worried about his future. He feels he has a destiny, but what is it? His faith in the Christian god is clearly waning, and he deliberately chooses to play hooky in Athens where he can study at university and find out the truth. Sadly, Athens doesn’t live up to his romantically idealised expectations, so when he hears of a local magician who has brought a statue to life, he’s keen to find this man and learn from him. His friends from Cappadocia, who’ve been with him all this while, start to leave him, and the door to madness swings wide to let him in.
Maximus, the magician, is determined to overthrow the Christian religion, and while it’s admirable that he wants to bring light into the world, and sincerely believes what he tells Julian, it’s clear things are not going to end well. Even Maximus is concerned when first Cain and then Judas appear to Julian in a drug-induced vision, but he seems to get over these concerns remarkably quickly when he finds himself advisor-in-chief to the new emperor. At the end, with Julian dead and Jovian, his general, proclaimed emperor in his place, Maximus expresses his disappointment that Julian turned out to be a dud after all, before indulging in a spot of competitive chanting with Peter, Julian’s only remaining friend from Cappadocia who’s reciting the Lord’s prayer over Julian’s dead body. Their positioning, one on either side holding an outstretched hand, and with Julian’s body down to a loincloth, evoked the crucifixion image used at the start of the play and again later. It suggested to me that the same leader, once dead, could be used by different groups to promote their own, conflicting, agendas, and don’t we know all about that today.
I don’t know if I can use the word ‘set’ to talk about the acting space, as it was anything but static. From the opening scene, with half the revolve dropped away to leave a semicircular chasm with a life-size crucifixion sculpture suspended half-way into it, the stage itself never seemed to settle into any particular format. For the most part, the space was open, and the revolve either dropped or rose to create many levels and locations. There was a low platform for Athens, with a very shallow splash pool and a screen backdrop with a view of the Acropolis. There was a throne room in Constantinople with a throne, a rug and not much else. There were the massive walls of a church, and two equally massive doors, as well as walls for other buildings, including a much smaller church in Antioch. There was one particularly gruesome setting which was on three levels, with the lowest being a kind of basement in which Maximus was evidently doing some heavy duty butchery as part of his advisory duties. The plastic bags and lots of fake blood suggested that many animals had been carved open for entrail-checking purposes, but then why had he kept the remains? Eugh.
The costumes were a mixture of modern and Romanesque, which worked fine for me, and overall the production was visually stunning. The dialogue seemed very fresh, and I have no idea how much of that was the new version, and how much Ibsen. The liberal use of extras for the soldiers, students, etc, added to the sense of historical change sweeping across society, and also created a strong contrast with the more solitary scenes. Ultimately, though, the whole performance depended on how well Andrew Scott carried off the part of Julian, especially as he’s on stage for almost the whole of the play; fortunately, he played a blinder. We hadn’t seen him before on stage, but I do hope we see him again. He showed us Julian’s difficult journey through the twists and turns of political and theological upheaval very clearly, and although it would be easy to dismiss Julian’s character as a whiny, spoilt brat, I never felt completely out of sympathy with him, even when he’s being disastrously insane. Mind you, there were other examples of nuttiness to compete with his, such as Helena, Constantius’s sister, who’s been having sex with a priest believing it’s actually Jesus she’s shagging. She’s another one with the gleam of holy murder in her eye – at one point she’s egging Julian on so much I couldn’t help thinking she’d give Lady Macbeth a run for her money.
This tremendous central performance was well supported by all the cast, so praise all round for a terrific production. We were surprised to see very few gaps in the audience for the second half – for all that we enjoyed it, it wouldn’t be the easiest play to relate to, despite the topical nature of the subject matter – but I’m glad it’s getting such a good response.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me