Wednesday 6 July 2011

What the National Theatre is for

Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre, London

Now this, this is the sort of staging the Olivier deserves. Jonathan Kent and his designer Paul Brown have thrown everything at Ibsen’s near-unstagable nine-hour epic, here whittled into a thrilling, if not particularly nuanced, three and a half hours by Ben Power. The play remains a curio, rather than a wholehearted success. It’s admirable more for its hyperbolic brazenness than any particular nuance within.

The Olivier’s drum revolve seems to churn the earth beneath their feet: here, sinking sections like skinholes; there, raising mountains. The effect is of an entire city, strangely abstracted, appearing on the stage before us. It has the scale of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and the exoticism of one of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. At one eye-popping moment, an extravagant funeral pyre sits under a gargantuan incense burner hanging from the ceiling. Beneath it a subterranean maze, first of the city’s foundations and, a level below, its refuse, bagged in orange, green and black plastic to look like mould.

Caught between the two is Julian (Andrew Scott), a man aspiring to conquer heaven, but dragged unfailingly downwards in the process. With echoes of the Icarus and Faustus myths, Julian attempts to defeat Christ and set himself up at the head of a new kingdom. As a lithe and pious student, he comes to believe as prophecies and signs that which we can see as coincidence or arbitrary connections. A fight for his own political survival mixed with an arrogance based on his deluded sense of destiny turns his self-protectionism into an all-conquering desire and, from a distant battlefield in Gaul, he turns to overthrow the Emperor.

Once crowned, a restlessness emerges and he sets his sights on Christ, intent on becoming, in John Lennon’s words, ‘bigger than Jesus’. So begins a purgation of Christianity from his empire.

It is with costume that Kent’s production scores its hits. Amidst the togas, laurels and breastplates of the old guard, Julian and his followers wear modern dress. He leads celebrations of the sun God, smattered in day-glo paint, the crowd like a nineties chorus of Hair. His suits are slick and slimline. His final battle is fought in desert camouflage uniform. Clearly, Kent is out to get us, warning against the sickness of today’s self-serving superhumanity. Or, as David Mament puts it in Three Uses of the Knife: ‘Today, as in ancient Rome, when all avenues of success have been travelled and all prizes won, the final prize is the delusion of godhead’.

Scott, who is coming to resemble a gaunt David Suchet, is ravishing as the Emperor who would be Ubermensch. Over three hours, he seems to grow an exoskeleton; his gentle face solidifying into a scowl. Marked by petulance and not without the odd childish tantrum, it is his voice that thrills. Scott speaks with a fruitiness – a trace of the tone that makes Lloyd Grossman ripe for parody – that gives him the overstatement of a game show host. It is a voice that grazes ear-melting beauty, only to fall short and plummet away from it. His syllables warp like melted metal and a scratchiness riles as fingernails on the underside of a mug induce squirms. Scott’s is a voice that rings in your ears for days afterwards.

In a cast of around fifty, occasionally stamping their feet in ominous unison, Jamie Ballard impresses as the devout Gregory, who finally – already blinded – tears the skin off his chest in protest, and Genevieve O’Reilly’s Helena is an icy picture of queenly grace. Ian McDiarmid’s Maximus, the underworld soothsayer who spurs Julian towards his prophecies, is suitably shady if a touch cod.

All of which aligns to make Emperor and Galilean a brilliant exercise in what-the-National-Theatre-is-for. While there are more intricate and dexterous examples around, the sheer barnstorming power of Ibsen and Power, Kent, Scott and Brown, makes this a rarity worth seeing. For interested parties, it is unmissable, if only because there won’t be another chance in this lifetime.

Till 10 August 2011


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