This is an evening that doesn't completely work and the task of the reviewer is to try to work out why. I can find three explanations. Is it the play? Is it the adaptation? Is it the production/performances?
This is the UK premiere of a play which in its original form is in two parts and ten acts and was probably not intended to be staged (although other of Ibsen's closet dramas very quickly were, for example Peer Gynt, as the programme note explains). It is a play about ideas – principally the struggle between paganism and Christianity, although also about the effects and exercise of power. These are big issues and it is very easy for plays about ideas to become all talk and no character or feeling. This is not something that the present production surmounts, and it is quite possible that the original version failed to surmount this either.
However, on this occasion we are not seeing the play as Ibsen intended it, which is in two parts and ten acts. Instead, we have a version condensed into a still longish three and a quarter hours by Ben Power. As the evening went on it increasingly seemed plausible to me that it is possible either that the play simply doesn't work if so condensed, or that Powers was not able to make a success of it. Oddly I was reminded of the film Cars 2 which I saw the previous afternoon. That is to say that one is constantly being hit over the head by the arguments and relationships whereas to my mind in the most successful plays these emerge organically from the individual characterisations and the relationships between them. There are flashes of such individuals and relationships but oddly for such a long evening I had a feeling of gaps – that we were in effect leaping forward too rapidly. A particular question here is how far Julian is actually interested in reasserting the power of paganism and how far it is actually about the reassertion of the power of the state against the power of the Christian church. Julian becomes drunk with power and on the idea of being immortal with such rapidity that it rather makes the whole argument about religion academical since one pretty rapidly ceases to believe that the aim of pagan restoration is any more than a political power-play.
The third explanation is that the problems lie in the performances and production. The Theatre Monkey website suggests that each season Nicholas Hytner likes to have a production which uses the full resources of the Olivier. The Olivier is a devil of a difficult space in which to put stuff on and to find plays which really work there (ironically given Hytner's apparent continued determination to turn his back on them, large musical revivals almost always work well there). I can see why, on paper, this gargantuan enterprise seemed like a good fit. But actually it isn't. You really don't need the revolve in this at all, and the sets are surprisingly spare. Gaul/Athens/Constantinople/the desert en route to Babylon all manage to look remarkably similar. If ever there was a play that cried out for a bit more local colour this unquestionably was it. In particular, there are quite a number of battles where you badly need the sense of a clash of civilisations. Jonathan Kent's solution to this was video projection. This might have worked except for the decision to spice up the projections with shots of helecopters, bombers, machine guns, tracer bullets. This when the soldiers actually on stage are walking around in armour and wielding swords. I assume that the intention was to suggest the on-going clash of civilisations in these lands but in my view this mixing of periods is a mistake. There are some similar oddities in costuming – in particular quite why Ursulus (principal bureaucrat) is wearing a suit and tie under his makeshift toga was a bit of a mystery. These problems have some intriguing parallels with those of the Mendes Richard III. Another parallel comes from the weird way that Roman soldiers in Kent's world signal they are on the verge of revolt or battle – by stamping their feet. I don't know where this device has suddenly come from – is it some sort of HIP principal I was not previously aware of? Rather like all the drumming (there's more of that here too) it really doesn't make the ensemble seem particularly violent or threatening and directors should be speedily disillusioned from the notion that it does. This brings us finally to the score. When I noticed Jonathan Dove's name in the programme I had high hopes – his score for the rather more successfully epic adaptation of His Dark Materials was a triumph. But Dove also seems to have been emasculated by this show – there is virtually nothing musically outside the frenzied drumming, a few uninspired Christian hymns/chants and a song, “Let the Eagle Soar” which has the unfortunate effect of making one laugh rather than reinforcing the tension at the moment when Julian goes into open revolt.
Then we come to the performances. Andrew Scott (Julian) carries the huge weight of this beast almost entirely on his shoulders. His attempt to bring off the character is a valiant one, for sheer stamina he deserves credit and there are flashes of brilliance but he, or the play, or the adaptation, failed to truly engage me enough in Julian's dilemma. The character almost ends up coming across as rather mercurial and fickle, at first merely with friends, by the second half with hordes of armies and soldiers. Indeed pretty early in the second half it seemed clear that the man had got himself thoroughly drunk with power, the restoration of paganism was a mere means to an end, and I ceased to feel any great sympathy for him, or for the consequent straw man of paganism v. Christianity. Nabil Shaban's scheming Constantius is very good and it's a pity he disappears from the scene so early for what must be a long evening in the dressing room. Ian McDiarmid as the dubious mystic Maximus can also deliver a line but he is one of many whose motivations seem, either in original or because of adaptation, to have become obscured. Of Julian's three friends, the other crucial relationships, John Heffernan's Peter does the best job of surmounting the chopiness of the narrative and making the gradual evolution of their relations carry. Elsewhere there is urgent need for a few basic lessons about acting. Laurence Spellman's Gallus accompanies every line with mechanical arm gestures which do nothing to help him establish himself in his one scene. Genevieve O'Reilly's Helena has similar over the top problems in her main scene. Again maybe it's the play that's at fault but one feels more work was needed from Kent to help his performers inhabit these tricky characters.
On the experience of this version one can see why it is a UK premiere, and indeed why Ibsen's play is almost never staged anywhere. However, there is enough of interest to make it worth seeing, and I would be intrigued to see if it worked any better in it's original two part form.
Gosh, i disagree with so much of this review, especially in reference to Genevieve O'Reilly and Laurence Spellman's performances, who i both thought were truely excellent, in an astonishing production. As for Andrew Scott, incredible.
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