Ibsen at the National Theatre

Tom Sutcliffe on a rare attempt to tackle Ibsen’s epic drama about the last non-Christian Roman emperor

Ibsen’s ‘World-Historic Drama’ Emperor and Galilean is not the sort of play that very many of the world’s theatrical institutions could present. It consists of two huge full-length five-act plays, and it tells in great depth and subtlety the story of the last non-Christian Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate. So, an appropriate job for our National Theatre.

Huge scale

The version by Ben Power presented at the Olivier is, at three and a half hours, about half the length of the 1873 original. Jonathan Kent’s noisy but not very pictorial production underplays the serious philosophical discussions in the text, and sees Ibsen’s play merely as the romantic story of a Canute-like attempt to hold back a rising Christian tide – whereas in fact Ibsen was genuinely intrigued by Julian’s disillusionment with a disunited, even hydra-headed contemporary Christianity that under the successors of Constantine had scarcely excelled itself in virtue. The Christian majority of Julian’s youth were in hot debate about all sorts of subsequently suppressed heresies. Yet Power’s version manages to cut almost all references to them – as if nobody now knows or cares less about that kind of thing. The National’s good intention flaked before the sheer scale of Ibsen’s material. Alas, justice will now never be done to this text in the English-speaking world.

Brave determination

Julian was raised as a Christian prince. But he grew more and more disbelieving of the conflicted Christian teaching of his day and the varying views of reality it represented. William Archer’s fine 1890 translation is worth consulting, because in the full version Julian’s attempt to live up to high pre-Christian ideals is fascinatingly argued. The old Roman tradition was to be tolerant of all religions.

Only after the failed apostasy did the restored Christian empire determine to wipe out all relics of the ancient pantheons. Julian anyway did not reign long, and his devotion to Apollo and Dionysus was individual and incapable of mustering widespread popular endorsement. He fell leading an invasion of the Persian empire intended to stretch Roman power way to the east: and the east was where Julian was raised and where his entire rule was spent.

As well as being a surprisingly successful general Julian was probably the most literate of all Roman emperors except Marcus Aurelius, but despite his wish not to persecute Christians his radical religious policy inevitably led to violence against those who could not stomach his rejection of the religious truth in which he had been raised. Ibsen followed Voltaire in admiring his brave determination to set himself against history – without labouring the tragedy of a hero not in the end favoured by fortune.

Marks for effort

Jonathan Kent’s designer Paul Brown worked many imposing scene-change effects with the machinery of the Olivier revolve. But the wardrobe decision to use predominantly modern clothes rather than evoke the fourth century, and to present a mixture of Roman eagles and modern warplanes in video projections, further muddied the focus. Ibsen’s castlist of 55 named characters was reduced to 27, more overwhelminglymale than the original. A mixture of accents and styles did not add up to a convincing narrative, though Richard Durden as the adviser Ursulus and Ian McDiarmid as the retrograde visionary Maximus were both compelling.

Ultimately the need just to get through the material and tell the tale distracted from the argument of Julian’s vision of a different world which was what Ibsen was really about. Alpha-beta to the National for trying – but not good enough, with too many insecure young actors slipping into generalized crowd-work.

A breathtaking production

Richard Jones’s sublimely funny staging of Gogol’s great satirical masterpiece The Government Inspector at the Young Vic in a brilliantly crafted new version by David Harrower is simply breath-taking. Fifteen actors, quite a few of them familiar with Jones and his minutely observed and detailed comic style, play 25 roles, and the ensemble timing is superb. His cast of predictably hopeless and improper types is chosen for its special flavours, each actor well able to relish the challenges of Gogol’s absurd overthe-top playfulness. But there’s even more spectacular virtuosity from Amanda Lawrence as the indiscreet Postmaster with wide-eyed raw face and toothbrush moustache, from Julian Barratt’s commanding but not far-sighted enough Mayor, from Kyle Soller as the charmingly hyperactive and handsome young St Petersburg clerk Khlestakov, recently cleaned out at cards but hitting a streak of luck when taken to be the Tsarist Inspector whose rumoured imminent arrival lights the comic fuse, and from Callum Dixon as Khlestakov’s put-upon opportunist servant Osip.

Miriam Buether’s set includes some gloriously silly jokes and effects. David Sawer’s sound and music are vital for the recipe. But it is Jones’s immaculate pacing of the show, and his delight in florid inventive turns from talented artists that make the farce irresistible. Who could forget the blithely downmarket Doon Mackichan as the Mayor’s wife Anna, with Louise Brealey as her ludicrously confident daughter Maria, both frantically attempting to seduce Soller’s wicked dimpled Khlestakov? Such ripe human folly amply restores one’s faith. ND