It's always fun when the work of classic writers can be reinterpreted with flair and imagination, It's quite another story though when the play misses the point, or further abandons the poetic language that defines it. Those were the circumstances that faced Steve Vineberg last summer when the National Theatre did Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard) and Ibsen (Emperor and Galilean).
|Zoё Wanamaker (photo by Catherine Ashmore)|
Despite the silly excesses of Upton’s version of the script, this is a good production. It’s eloquently staged and beautifully lit (by Neil Austin), and almost the entire cast is splendid. The standouts are Wanamaker, Hill, Blakley, Bonnar and – the night I saw it – Craigie Els, stepping in for Tim McMullan in the role of the Ranevskys’ eccentric neighbor, Simyonov-Pishchik, another bankrupt aristocrat whose luck unexpectedly changes at the end of the play. Only a few performances are disappointing. As Lyubov’s daughter Anya, who is in love with Trofimov, Charity Wakefield tends to go for the same effects over and over again, and Gerald Kyd’s Yasha is overstated, though that may be partly the fault of Upton’s overwriting. As Firs, the aging servant who still longs for the days before the emancipation of the serfs, Kenneth Cranham comes across as too young (he and Gaev, whom Firs has been attending to since Gaev was a schoolboy, seem about the same age), and his final moments, when he finds he’s been forgotten in the house after the family has left and Lopakhin has locked it up, don’t have the power they should have. But they’re shortchanged by an odd staging choice on Davies’s part. In the text Firs finds he’s too weary to get up, and he passes gently away, just a shadow in the house that has always defined him. In this production he trips and falls and can’t rise again; his fate is a kind of pratfall, and so abrupt that it’s not clear exactly what happens to him.
Henrik Ibsen wrote Emperor and Galilean at the end of his epic poetic drama phrase, in 1873. Brand was written in 1866, Peer Gynt in 1867; he shifted into realist mode with Pillars of Society and then turned out A Doll’s House in 1879. But Emperor and Galilean wasn’t performed until 1896, and since Ibsen wrote it in two parts and ten acts, it’s amazing that it ever made it to the stage at all. It chronicles the life of the Roman Emperor Julian, raised a Christian in the early fourth century but a convert to paganism by the time he ascended the throne upon the death of his uncle, Constantinus, The National Theatre is offering it in a new version by Ben Power whittled down to four acts and a little over three and a half hours, directed by Jonathan Kent on a set by Paul Brown that makes wide use of the Olivier Theatre’s gargantuan drum revolve (which rises out of the stage floor to a towering height) as the action wanders from Constantinople to Athens, Ephesus, Gaul, Vienne, Antioch and Persia. The production is alternately fascinating and exhausting; I don’t think anyone else is going to attempt to stage the play again for a long time.
|Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean (photo by Catherine Ashmore)|
- originally published on August 22, 2011 in Critics at Large.