Plays written in languages other than English often have to be adapted as well as translated for the English-speaking stage. Sometimes the reason is practical. For the National Theatre, Ben Power has reduced the unstageable eight hours of Henrik Ibsen’s epic drama “Emperor and Galilean” to a mere bottom-punishing three hours and 30 minutes. Despite drastic cutting, I still feel I know all I want about the Norwegian playwright’s view of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate and how he came to deserve his nickname.
This chapter of ancient history naturally fascinates anyone who is interested in the development of Christianity. But Ibsen’s ambivalent view of it is only intermittently dramatic. Like “Brand” and “Peer Gynt,” he conceived this play as “closet” drama, meant to be read rather than performed. Closet pieces typically had casts too large and episodic structures, but freed the playwright from 19th-century stage conventions; and though the earlier two plays were soon adapted for the repertory, the 1871 “Emperor and Galilean” has resisted most efforts to stage it.
Now director Jonathan Kent, designer Paul Brown and lighting designer Mark Henderson have used all the bells and whistles of the NT’s Olivier, employing the revolving stage on three distinct levels, plus film footage of modern warfare, dreary original music by Jonathan Dove and crowds of beer-sodden, Plato-praising pagan-throwback students dressed in 2011 leisure-wear, in a serious attempt to make theater out of this ditzy theology.