The National Theatre’s Emperor And Galilean is the high church of theatre; heady with incense and ceremony, and packed full of tradition and stories. At three and a half hours and with a cast of over 50 it is also undeniably epic.
Opening with a huge crucifix shadowing the young Julian (Andrew Scott), the biblical parallels from then on in come thick and fast. A prisoner in the court of his uncle, the Emperor Constantius, the young Julian longs to head back to the mountains of his youth to embrace a life of solitude and prayer.
This image of Julian as a pious soldier of God does not last long as he travels to Athens to debate the true meaning of the world with philosophers and students, alongside his three companions who have pledged to look after him.
With ideas of grandeur growing each day, and his mother’s prophesy that he would achieve great things niggling, the foolish Julian denies his need for Christ to each of his companion in turn, just as Peter ignored the warning calls of the cock crowing.
Instead he looks to local mystic Maximus (Ian McDiarmid) for answers. When he predicts Julian will create the third kingdom, where the spirit world and humanity will meet, Christianity goes out the window in exchange for paganism and the pursuit of pleasure he once rejected.
Jonathan Kent’s production is a feast for the eyes. The rich, operatic staging is brought to colossal life by Paul Brown’s design that sees the Olivier’s revolve stage put to full use. Everything from the Persian desert to Athens, gruesome, bloody sacrificial temples and modest churches are created with the help of Knifedge’s video projections and Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting.
With time seemingly interchangeable, the production opens with Julian wearing a brocade suit amongst a sea of togas and gold leaf headpieces. Helicopters soar overhead in battle scenes while the soldiers wear the uniforms of Ancient Rome.
Scott is always at the centre of all this grandeur. On stage for almost every scene, his portrayal of the confused, power-hungry Julian is engrossing. Like a spoilt, slightly naive boy he justifies what should be his with little thought to the most devastating of consequences.
Although it is easy to hate his actions, Scott’s Julian is captivatingly complicated and he somehow remains at a level of innocence to the very end, with only his ever-increasing ego and the temptations of promises of Godly immortality to blame.
What Ibsen would have thought of the National’s production is anyone’s guess, but surely no one could be unimpressed by Ben Power’s pacey adaptation that has reduced the text from a whopping nine hours. If it was a historical epic spectacle, warning of the dangers of over zealous leaders, Ibsen was after than they surely have succeeded, proving wars over religion to be as old as the hills and humanity slow to learn.